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'Bossnapping’, a criminal offence rarely punished in France

4 min

Disgruntled workers at Goodyear France held two members of their senior management team captive for around 30 hours this week, in a bid to force the company to increase their redundancy pay.

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The latest case of “bossnapping” has revived a debate about a potentially serious criminal offence which, though punishable with up to 30 years in jail, is rarely, if at all, sanctioned.

"In France, bossnappings occur from time to time when the workers can’t take any more”, said Jean-Claude Mailly, general secretary of the Force Ouvrière trade union.

The practice of "bossnappings" to protest layoffs was rampant in France at the height of the financial crisis, with notable examples at Molex, Sony France, La Poste (France’s state postal service) and Caterpillar (see picture above).

And while Mailly insists that holding directors captive is “not such a big deal”, business leaders are increasingly speaking out about the “very serious” criminal act of holding someone somewhere entirely against their will.

France's main employers’ organisation, the Medef, denounced the Goodyear bossnapping as "violent, completely against the principles of dialogue and negotiation".

The head of US tyre firm Titan International Maurice Taylor, who has offered to partially take over the Goodyear plant, told Europe 1 radio: “In the United States, that would be called a kidnapping. These people would be arrested. It's a very serious crime, you risk life in prison.

“But in France, your government does nothing, it's crazy.”

Contacted by FRANCE 24, a spokesman for the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said he had no idea how UK courts would respond to a bossnapping because “I can’t think of any cases of this nature that the CPS has dealt with”.

Up to five years in jail

Theoretically, perpetrators of “bossnappings” in France risk up to five years in jail and 75,000 euro fines.

If the captivity lasts longer than a week, the maximum prison term goes up to 20 years, or 30 years if the offence is aggravated by violence.

But in the case of industrial action, the French courts have been reluctant to come down hard on angry workers.

In May 2010 Olivier Besancenot, a former postman and founder of the French New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), and 12 others “bossnapped” a number of La Poste’s senior management.

They were fined 1,500 euros each, even though these were all suspended sentences. All but three of these convictions were struck down on appeal because of the “extenuating circumstances” of the workers’ “desperate situation” and because none of them had previous convictions.

A strategy that works, sometimes

These desperate circumstances have often paid off for the hostage takers.

In 2009, workers at a French factory owned by British adhesive tape manufacturer Scapa “bossnapped” four directors, sat them at the negotiating table and won 1.7 million euros for a redundancy scheme. The initial offer had been 890,000 euros.

These hostage situations are normally brief, and the “bossnappers” are careful to treat their “victims” well. So well, in fact, that once released, the bosses “hold no particular animosity towards” the workers who held them against their will, according to a Slate.fr analysis written at the time of the Scapa incident.

The same year, the CEO of Sony France, released after spending a night locked in a meeting room, decided not to press charges against any of his workers.

The French habit of taking directors hostage has had some – albeit limited – export abroad.

In 2009, again, 400 employees at struggling German auto parts manufacturer Karmann in Osnabrück barricaded a board meeting, and police were called in to get them out.

The German press described the event in terms of German workers “learning French”.

And in China, bossnappings are hardly rare. In June 2013 Chip Starnes, CEO of Florida-based Specialty Medical Supplies, was held for six days by workers at a plant in Beijing where he had gone to announce the factory’s relocation to India.

Starnes came out of the situation alive, luckier than the CEO of Tonghua Iron and Steel in the Jilin province of China, who was beaten to death in 2009 by disgruntled employees.

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