The French Boss-Nappers’ Last Stand

France’s labor unions are weak and getting weaker. When they take executives hostage, as workers did at a Goodyear factory on Monday, it’s an act of desperation.

Two executives at a Goodyear tire factory about a hundred miles north of Paris were released this afternoon after more than 24 hours held captive by angry workers. The boss-nappers gave way when riot cops from the French gendarmerie moved into the building to get them out. But union rep Mickaël Mallet, of the 118-year-old Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), vowed to fight on in the plant that has been trying to close for the last five years. He said that now the tires will be held hostage.

Well, he didn’t use quite that language. “We’re going to negotiate: the factory against our bonus,” said Mallet. The workers wouldn’t trash the place, he said, they’re not thugs. But if the plant had to close, finally, his people ought to get the best deal possible from the bosses. “If they [the owners] want to get their tires, that will have to be negotiated,” said Mallet.

One is tempted to admire the chutzpah, just as one admires the passion of the Occupy Movement, or the egalitarian promises of New York’s new mayor Bill De Blasio. The dislocations of globalization are painful, and the flagrant inequalities created by money movers who don’t give a damn about workers have taken the luster off the future for countless people around the world.

But in France there’s a cold-sweat smell of desperation about the left-wing labor movement, and a sad air of anachronism. The slogans of the CGT, with its deep roots in the Communist Party, can be seen plastered on the windows of the highly unionized post offices in downtown Paris or raised aloft on banners at demonstrations: “Share the wealth!” they say, or, “Work less so that everyone can work.” Business owners and stockholders, meanwhile, are pictured as “vultures” and “hyenas” bent on destroying the social fabric of France.

That French President François Hollande is from the Socialist Party helps the Goodyear strikers not at all. It was on his government’s orders, after all, that the cops moved in to get the hostage bosses out.

Foreigners may have the impression, based on occasional transport slowdowns and a few spectacular events in years past, like the legendary general strike in the winter of 1995 that brought the country to a standstill, that France is held hostage by its unions. But in truth, its labor movement is held hostage by the past.

According to the European Trade Union Institute’s worker participation database, only eight percent of French employees are represented by organized labor, making the trade union movement here “one of the weakest in Europe.”

What’s left of organized labor in France is so badly divided, meanwhile, it might be called disorganized labor. There are countless personal and political rivalries among leaders of five major federations. “The reasons for the differences are not always clear and there can also be a gap between the political positions put forward by the leadership and those supported by the membership,” says the Trade Union Institute’s analysis. In one of the more moderate syndicates, for instance, there are highly ideological socialists, Trotskyists and Gaullists, while another of the federations says it draws its inspiration from “Christian social teaching.”

The CGT, in the old days, was essentially Stalinist. The collapse of the Soviet Empire more than 20 years ago left it, for a time, orphaned and forlorn. And since then its workers have been fighting rear-guard actions, like kidnapping their bosses (or in the Goodyear case, the local heads of production and of human resources). They rail against the vultures and hyenas. And, finally, the factories close anyway.