At Large

Suicide Countdown

The French are reacting tragically to efforts to introduce "Anglo-Saxon" economic reforms.

By 10.5.09

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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 from the same company, France Telecom, have also committed suicide in various ways in the past 18 months, all apparently due to mismanagement and 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.

Yet 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The troubles in the outdated civil service mastodons may be extreme cases but they serve to illustrate the French love of étatisme and the suspicion of metrics-based management methods.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 bulls--t".

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 President Didier Lombard 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 President Nicolas 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 consultancy A. T. Kearney. Together their lack of rapport with employees has made them highly unpopular figures in the company.

French workers have never been known for their flexibility. But the impact of globalization and the lowering of borders within the European Union have meant a gradual erosion of the cocoon inside which they have traditionally found comfort. 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 President 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 technician who has spoken out. Others, 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 attempted to wear 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. 

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.