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Friday, April 3, 2009

French Bosses Besieged As Worker Anger Rises
As Originally Posted to The Wall Street Journal

PARIS -- French workers besieged bosses, including luxury and retail tycoon François-Henri Pinault, as anger at proposed layoffs generated more forceful protests.

Mr. Pinault, the son of François Pinault, is chief executive officer of PPR SA, which controls exclusive brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Employees surrounded his car as he left a meeting in Paris early Tuesday evening and refused to let him leave for nearly an hour. Eventually riot police dispersed the protesters.

Separately, workers facing layoffs at a Caterpillar Inc. factory in the French Alps detained four of their bosses Tuesday in a bid to secure better severance packages.

The incidents followed several others in France in recent weeks, and show how social unrest is mounting as the economic downturn deepens.

In France, companies can't lay off workers as easily as in the U.S. When a firm wants to cut workers, it must negotiate what is known as a "social plan" with local unions, often including a lump-sum payment, trainingand help in finding new jobs.

Trying to negotiate better severance packages, workers at a 3M Co. factory south of Paris held their boss captive last week, as did employees at Sony Corp.'s France unit earlier in March. Top managers at bank Société Générale SA awarded themselves stock-option packages two weeks ago, but then renounced them due to public anger.

And unions staged nationwide protests in January and March to demand concessions from high-earning business leaders and help for victims of the recession.

France isn't suffering more than other big economies. But the country's tradition of egalitarianism triggers strong reactions when people think they are being mistreated, or when better-off people appear to flaunt their wealth at a time of general hardship. Demonstrations have been peaceful, with the executives being held largely as a symbolic protest. There haven't been any flare-ups in the rough neighborhoods on the outskirts of major French cities, which exploded in riots in 2005 after an accidental police shooting of two young people.

Mr. Pinault, 46, has long been a symbol of France's monied elite. He attended one of France's top business schools and in 2005 inherited control of his father's fashion and retail empire.

The employees who surrounded him Tuesday work for two retailers in the PPR group: Fnac, which sells books and music, and Conforama, which sells furniture. Mr. Pinault announced a restructuring plan for these in February that could lead to 1,200 job losses in France. Protesters blocked a car Mr. Pinault was riding in as it was trying to leave the company's head office, said Boucherit Aziz, a Conforama union representative.

"Mr. Pinault squeezed all the cash he could from Conforama and now he wants to throw us away," said Mr. Aziz, who participated in the protest.

Through the window of his car, Mr. Pinault told workers that the company was doing its best to avoid abrupt layoffs, according to Mr. Aziz. Police didn't arrest any of the protesters, he said.

Mr. Pinault wasn't immediately available to comment.

The problems at Caterpillar followed a recently announced plan to lay off about 730 people from its factory near Grenoble, which employs about 2,700. The company had been negotiating with the unions for several weeks, but workers went on strike on Monday to protest what they saw as poor terms.

On Tuesday employees occupied the management offices and wouldn't allow four executives to leave, according to union representative Bernard Patrick. It wasn't clear when the executives would be allowed to leave.

Caterpillar said it hoped to resolve the matter quickly. "The actions that are taking place today, led by a small minority of individuals, are not helping as we work for a positive resolution of this situation," said Chris Schena, vice president for European and Asian manufacturing, in a statement. "The best way to resolve this matter is to continue the negotiations."