lundi 28 septembre 2009

Méthodes de gestion

In France, in Switzerland, in Poland and in America, everyone seems to be talking about the surprise arrest of Roman Polanski in Zurich, for a crime he committed on US soil 31 years ago. This is one of those issues that will always divide the French and the Americans. It isn't that the French think it was okay for Polanski to drug and then rape a 13-year old girl, so let's not go there.

In the meantime, though, yet another employee of France Télécom committed suicide this morning in Alby-sur-Chéran (Haute Savoie). This brings to 24 the number of employee suicides at FT since February 2008. FT was a state-owned company until it was privatized in 1996. Since 2004, the majority of its shareholders are private, although the French government remains l'actionnaire de référence. This basically means it still has the biggest stake, even though it no longer has a minorité de blocage and, presumably, no role in the company's day-to-day management. Let's hope not, anyway.

France Télécom currently has a workforce of 102,000. It used to be considered une belle situation as far as employment is concerned: you got in because you knew someone and then you stayed in for life, with great benefits all along the way. But since it was privatized and went public (i.e., began trading shares on the Paris Bourse), France Télécom has had to adopt a more disciplined management style. It faces competition from other operators and has had to restructure. The unions have been fighting these restructurings and demanding the adoption of more humaine management methods. Let me repeat it again in case you missed it: the French state is FT's biggest shareholder.

As part of the restructuring effort, people are being forced to change jobs and, in many case, move. For an American, this is no big deal. We get laid off, we move if that's what it takes to find a new job. In France, moving 50 kilometers represents an unthinkable hardship for some people. When I met the people who would become my in-laws (now ex in-laws) for the first time, I remarked that I knew someone who lived in a town not far from theirs. They live in Corrèze, in a small area with five or six other inhabitants. The nearest town is several miles away. The town in question was 25 kilometers from their home. When I showed them on a map where it was, they said "why, that is nowhere near here". The postman who delivered their mail every day had been doing so for at least 20 years. He would often stop in for a drink or two (La Gentiane)and then climb back into his postal van and drive away. This astonished me - that a civil servant would drink on the job and then drive. But my ex in-laws were people he had known all his life. It would have been rude and un-neighborly not to accept. And anyway, there was good gossip to be traded.

I have never been able to figure out if I envy this way of life or not. There is something both poignant and reassuring about having such a firmly fixed sense of place. But this is the 21st century, isn't it? Isn't it time for people to give up their attachment to a particular terroir and way of life and wake up to reality? Reality is jobs being outsourced to Bangalore, India and that is what France Télécom has to compete with. La mondialisation quoi!

But at France Télécom, some are saying hell no. Are they being selfish or just plain irrational, trying to defend their piece of the pie in an uncertain world? Or are they like suicide bombers, willing to die for a larger cause and defending a way of life that is being destroyed par coup de restructurations? I have to admit, to my mind there is something admirable about refusing the way the world is going.

On September 28, at 9:39 am (heure de Paris), employee number 24 jumped off a viaduct and died.