Oct 5th 2009

Telecom reforms drive French workers to suicide

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

French workers have never been known for their flexibility. But the impact of globalization has meant a gradual erosion of the cocoon inside which they have traditionally found comfort.

The backlash against more rigorous management standards has been most disturbing at France Telecom where a wave of suicides has prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy's employment minister to call the CEO in for a tête-à-tête. An easing of management style was promptly promised.

The France Telecom saga has been hair-raising even to the tough team advising Sarkozy. One French woman jumped to her death from her office window. A few days later a man leapt off a highway overpass into the path of onrushing cars and was killed. And 22 others have also committed suicide in various ways in the past 18 months, all apparently due to the unbearable stress in the workplace.

Belatedly, the company has finally agreed that something must be amiss. Top executives last month postponed key elements of their drive for management modernization and promised a "more human" corporate culture by December.

France Telecom is just one example of the efforts under way in the French economy to bring modern management techniques to bear. Coming up in January will be the French Post Office, due to be converted to private company status. Postal workers are fighting it every step of the way, most recently with a nationwide referendum to play up how unpopular the scheme is.

The upheavals and their consequences have dominated the French media in recent weeks. A television debate a few days ago asked the question: "How soon will the suicides spread to the Post Office?"

France is undergoing a slow and painful adaptation to the realities of deregulation, privatization and international competition, exposing companies to the rigors of the free market - sometimes with scant regard for employees' ability to keep pace.

What, many outsiders ask, is all the fuss about? The two most frequently cited complaints about management innovations are routine in most international companies: rotation to new locations and annual performance reviews. Both are alien practices in France. A psychiatrist wrote in the press recently that his patients from France Telecom have also suffered from "lack of appreciation by their superiors, affronts to their dignity, and an excessive emphasis on productivity and profitability".

The troubles in the outdated civil service mastodons may be extreme cases but they serve to illustrate the French love of étatisme and the suspicion of metrics-based management methods. Indeed, the Telecom and Post Office cases starkly highlight some of the quirky aspects of French business in general, such as the company as a kind of mother figure that has a duty to protect its children.

Tough-minded management ideas imported from abroad are generally unwelcome. A strain of anti-Americanism runs through the labor movement, and much of the economic reform under way is sneered at as "Anglo-Saxon" in origin, French code words for American cowboy capitalism. A French executive once told me, in his best Franglais, that he believed setting priorities such as "customer first" was "just more Anglo Saxon bullshit".

The Telecom workers have not been not shy about making their displeasure known. Some have complained of a new culture that treats employees "ground meat" rather than people.

France Telecom CEO Didier Lombard, a former telecoms engineer, was booed, hissed and physically threatened recently when he visited a site near Paris where an employee had taken his own life. Lombard is accused by labor unions of refusing to take the stress crisis seriously until a few weeks ago when the death rate became a daily headline in the French media.

Now the "suicide countdown", as one magazine calls it, will reportedly lead to his replacement by a successor hand-picked by Sarkozy. The French government holds 24 percent of the partially privatized France Telecom, making it the largest shareholder.

For the moment, Lombard is assisted by Louis-Pierre Wenès, former head of the French office of the U.S. consultancy A. T. Kearney. Together their lack of rapport with employees has made them highly unpopular figures in the company.

The threat to their traditions is most dramatic in companies that are part of the huge state economy - notably the old PTT that grouped both the post office and the telecommunications services. A job there was usually a job for life.

Out of this protected environment grew a model of work-life balance that has been touted by some soft-focus business gurus as the way forward. The balance, based on the 35-hour work week, is tilted in favor of the individual, not the company. Global competitors tend to tilt the balance the other way. Now, under pressure instigated by Sarkozy and his advisers, that is beginning to change.

Media coverage of the tension inside France Telecom has sounded the alarm in a most public way, threatening the company's reputation and questioning the force-feeding of new work practices. Newspapers, radio and television are giving voice to employees who consider themselves to have been pushed around unreasonably as they "suffer in silence", according to one engineer who has spoken out. The more fragile employees, he said, simply "jump out the window".

A group of five men and women in Bordeaux, where I live, went public recently to describe their urgent meeting with human resources to explain their frustrations. "Three of us were in tears," one of them reported to a local journalist.

Another employee, recently forced into early retirement, told the newspaper Sud-Ouest that he was harassed during his last year, forced to occupy an empty office with no formal workload as managers wore him down by ignoring him. Lately he has been going for long walks in the nearby woods, he said, carrying a length of rope in case he can work up the courage to take his life. So far, he has resisted the act because of his family.

Many French companies have already undertaken reforms to meet the challenges of international competition. But the large ex-monopolies such as the remnants of the old PTT find themselves in a peculiar bind - a workforce clinging to the past while managers confront globalized competitive pressures.

Painful as the adaptation is proving to be, competitive pressures dictate that the workforce eventually will have to bend.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."