French workers have released the four Caterpillar bosses they’ve been holding since yesterday, the latest in a series of bossnappings that have characterized the distinctly French reaction to the growing recession.
It is important to emphasize, I think, that a bossnapping in France doesn’t have the same connotation that it would have here if, say, some workers were to take a bank CEO hostage. Like a a lot of what passes for social agitation in France, this is is more like theatre than anything, and to that extent is part of a broader negotiating strategy. In many ways, this is just the workplace version of the highly ritualised student protests that take place on a regular basis.
The underlying problem is that France doesn’t have a functioning civil society, with institutions designed to broker between competing interests and encourage some sort of social consensus. Instead, France is one of the most centralized states in the world, governed by remote bureaucratic agencies that are at times able to entirely ignore local opinion. This has given the French a rather distinct attitude toward the state, in which power is always seen as lying in the hands of les autres, a group that steadfastly resists change until accumulated discontent boils over into the streets, or in the case of bossnapping, into the executive suite
As a sign of how everyone sees the essentially theatrical element to all of this, note that nobody — not Sarkozy, and not even the bosses themselves — seem terribly put out or surprised by any of this. It’s part of an accepted form of behaviour that is often successful, and already Sarkozy has promised to step in and help the Caterpillar union workers.
Related: This was on last week, but the CBC’s The Current had a good show about bossnapping and how it fits into France’s broader culture.