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

Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "To paraphrase Charles Dickens, this is the best of times and the worst of times. As financial markets celebrate the coming vaccine-led boom, the confluence of epidemiological and political aftershocks has pushed us back into a quagmire of heightened economic vulnerability. In Dickensian terms, to reach a “spring of hope,” we first must endure a “winter of despair.” "
Nov 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Under a sane national policy, the federal government would spend as much money as it takes to generate the demand necessary to make it worthwhile for employers to re-hire this one-twentieth of the working-age population. Worries about what we can afford would be set aside until the day the world’s savers no longer regard US government debt as a special, singularly valuable asset. That day may never come."
Nov 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "The EU can’t afford to compromise on the rule-of-law provisions. How it responds to the challenge posed by Orbán and Kaczyński will determine whether it survives as an open society true to the values upon which it was founded."
Nov 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the interim, he will be nurturing an insidious threat he has left in his wake – a potential low-grade insurgency bubbling beneath the surface. It may well be that America it is about to experience a political paramilitary insurgency. Many of Trump’s supporters are “rough people” who are armed, fiercely patriotic, and firmly believe what Trump has been selling for the past four years – such as that America is being overrun by “colored” people and immigrants, is under attack, and that Canada is a national security threat. Many of them also believe that Trump was cheated out of a second term. They may or may not want civil war, but they will surely want to ensure that havoc and chaos prevail following Trump’s forced departure from office."
Nov 10th 2020
EXTRACT: "The year was 1932, and the transition from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt occurred in the midst of an unparalleled economic depression and banking crisis. The outgoing president, Hoover, had an intense aversion to his successor,…….. There are two lessons here. The president-elect and those around him need to take extra precautions for their personal safety, given the inflamed political climate and Trump’s ongoing efforts to fan the flames. And Biden now, like FDR then, must reiterate his message of hope and unity as an antidote to the coronavirus and political division. In 1933, it was “fear itself” that Americans had to overcome. Today, when it is fear of each other that Americans must overcome, Biden’s affirmation that there are “no red or blue states, just the United States” is a good start."
Nov 10th 2020
EXTRACT: "It seems clear that, as Donald Trump said a few weeks ago “This will not end well.” Far from being over, this election may very well continue to play out for weeks to come. Trump and the GOP have been telegraphing their strategy for over a month now. They will continue to challenge to validity of the vote in court. They will demand recounts. They will incite their followers to demonstrate at vote-counting facilities. In the end, many Americans will lose faith in the electoral process and America’s democracy will be tarnished in the eyes of the world. That much is clear. "
Nov 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "When CBS, NBC and ABC cut away from President Donald Trump’s news conference at the White House on the evening of Nov. 5, they took pains to explain why they were shutting off the nation’s commander-in-chief...... It was a moment that for me, as a journalism historian, carried echoes of the 1954 takedown of another flamboyant populist demagogue, Sen. Joe McCarthy."
Nov 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Prominent evangelical pastor and author John Piper has likewise drawn on several biblical texts when writing about the choice facing voters: “There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, ‘He sinned and made Israel to sin’ … it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.”......In this reading, the Bible does not have a category for a good leader with bad personal character. Nor does it seem to imagine that a nation can remain untainted by the perceived moral failures of its leaders. "
Nov 1st 2020
EXTARCT: "This pandemic will undoubtedly go down in history as a contrast in political ideologies as much as in the battle between mankind and nature, and the hopeful triumph of medical technology. It is putting to the test the political, economic, social, and cultural diversity of the world’s nations as never before, and has already proven just how fragile the world’s functional ecosystems are in the era of globalization. In laying bare the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s nations, it is also serving to challenge some conventional wisdom about what is, or is not, a preferred method of governance. In this battle, America is badly floundering while China has put itself in a position to dust itself off and move on."
Oct 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "At this stage, the Trumpian personality cult has completely dispensed with the need for actual plans and proposals (indeed, the Republican Party, which Trump now controls, did not even bother to offer a policy platform for the election). Trump embodies whatever his supporters want, even when they themselves don’t know what that is. This is all too typical of fascist leaders, who usually function as a father figure for those susceptible to the appeal of an authoritarian personality. As the father of the “MAGA” nation, Trump decides what is best for his children, and it is this patriarchal authority that provides the rationale for violence, lies, and even dictatorship."
Oct 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is certain: a highly contested election would cause further damage to America’s global image as an exemplar of democracy and the rule of law, eroding its soft power. Particularly over the past four years, the country has increasingly come to be regarded as a political basket case. While hoping that the chaotic outcomes outlined above do not come to pass – polls still show a strong lead for Biden – investors should be preparing for the worst, not just on election day but in the weeks and months thereafter. "
Oct 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s approach today is similar: first, insulate its citizens from a virulent pathogenic contagion with draconian public-health measures aimed at containing and mitigating the spread of the disease, and then – and only then – make judicious use of monetary and fiscal policy to reinforce the post-lockdown snapback. This is very different from the approach taken in the US, where the post-lockdown debate is more about using monetary and fiscal policies as front-line instruments of economic liberation, rather than relying on disciplined public-health measures aimed at virus containment........ This underscores the sharp contrast between China’s COVID-first strategy and the America-first approach of US President Donald Trump’s administration. In China, unlike the US, there is no political and public resistance to masks, social distancing, and aggressive testing as requisite norms of the COVID-19 era. Meanwhile, the US is in the midst of its third serious wave of infection while China continues to exercise prompt and effective control over new outbreaks. Earlier this autumn, for example, some nine million citizens in Qingdao were tested in just five days after a relatively small outbreak affecting fewer than 20 residents. By contrast, Trump wears his own experience with COVID-19 infection as some perverse badge of courage, rather than as a warning of what may lie ahead."
Oct 20th 2020
EXTRACTS: Disney has announced a significant restructuring of its media and entertainment business, boldly placing most of its growth ambitions and investments into its recently launched streaming service, Disney+…. From a corporate strategy perspective, the move is remarkable on two fronts. Firstly, the sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented….Let’s not forget that it was just last year that Disney held a near 40% revenue share of the US box office….. The fact that in just seven months of the pandemic breaking out, Disney decided to reinvent itself primarily around streaming speaks volumes about its expectations regarding the pandemic length. Clearly the group decided that waiting it out was no longer an option.”
Oct 10th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrection, martial law, and civil war in the United States......... Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast....... While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil........ Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented."
Oct 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published an article in the New York Times that articulated what has come to be known as the Friedman doctrine: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” It was a theme he had developed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, where he argued that the “one and only” responsibility business owes to society is the pursuit of profits within the legal rules of the game. The Friedman doctrine put its stamp on our era. It legitimized the freewheeling capitalism that produced economic insecurity, fueled rising inequality, deepened regional divides, and intensified climate change and other environmental problems. Ultimately, it also led to a social and political backlash. Many large businesses have responded by engaging in – or paying lip service to – the notion of corporate social responsibility."
Oct 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is well on its way to becoming a cashless society. More than 600 million Chinese already use Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay to pay for much of what they purchase. Between them, the two companies control approximately 90% of China’s mobile payments market, which totaled some $17 trillion in 2019. A wide variety of sectors throughout China have since adopted Blockchain to pay bills, settle disputes in court and track shipments. The Chinese government understands that, via Blockchain, the issuance of its own cryptocurrency is an excellent way to track and record the movement of payments, goods and people."
Oct 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant........But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too."
Oct 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "...... the economic pain inflicted by COVID-19 is not being borne by publicly traded companies. It is falling on small businesses and individual service proprietors – from dry cleaners to restaurants to entertainment providers – that are not listed on the stock market (which leans more toward manufacturing). These smaller players simply do not have the capital needed to survive a shock of this duration and magnitude. And government programs that have helped keep them afloat for a while are beginning to lapse, raising the risk of a snowball effect in the event of a second wave."
Oct 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. "
Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."