French Workers Hold Boss Hostage

Angry 3M workers take extreme measures to negotiate severance benefits.

March 25, 2009, 1:28 PM

PARIS, March 25, 2009— -- About 150 striking employees of U.S. pharmaceutical company 3M in Pithiviers, south of Paris, are holding a company executive hostage today as they negotiate job severance benefits and French laborers protest widespread job losses.

French TV showed 3M's director of French operations, Luc Rousselet, locked up alone in an office, in front of his computer, talking on the phone and eating.

He told France 2 TV through the half-open door of the office that "it's going very well." A group of employees could be seen killing time in front of the office, playing cards, reading newspapers and talking.

Rousselet slept for a few hours on a flattened cardboard box after the negotiations broke off at 3 a.m. this morning. Groups of 20 employees took turns in keeping an eye on their hostage.

Besides taking the boss hostage, French workers burned tires and marched on the presidential palace today in anger over growing layoffs and economic instability.

"When workers have a grievance in revolutionary France, the laws of the republic are suspended," Ted Stanger, a U.S. journalist living in Paris who has written numerous books on the French, told "They can kidnap, they can virtually do what they want, and the police will not intervene, because it's considered that workers have all the rights. So, that explains why they can presume to hold somebody hostage when in any other part of the world it's considered a terrorist act."

At 3M, Rousselet said the employees took him hostage after he rejected what he described as a last-minute demand from the unions -- payment for days employees were out on strike.

"This is something they put on the table at the last minute," he told France Info radio this morning. "One has to assume his responsibilities. It's also unfair for people who did not go on strike. My personal case is not dramatic, to spend a night in an office. I think people who are affected by this restructuring plan are certainly to be more pitied. So, I understand the distress of the people."

Negotiations Falter, Workers Hold Boss Hostage could not reach Rousselet for comment, and 3M France declined to reply.

The company recently announced layoffs and job transfers at its French locations, including nearly half the Pithiviers factory's 235 workers.

This production site, which manufactures spray cans, tablets and transdermal patches as a subcontractor, has faced confrontation for several months over surplus production given the continual decline in customer demand, 3M said in a news release in December.

"Attempts to try to find a partner did not succeed, thus the decision to stop the manufacturing of medicines by the end of September 2009 was taken," the news release stated.

Employees had hoped to come to terms with the company quickly. The administrative office in Pithiviers organized a telephone mediation among the different parties.

"We were able to conclude a protocol of discussions with the management of 3M in France," Jean-Francois Caparros of the union Force Ouvriere told Agence France Presse.

"We would like to hold talks in Pithiviers with the management of 3M France" because Rousselet, the executive being held hostage, "no longer considers himself in a situation to negotiate," Caparros said.

The situation at the factory has, so far, remained peaceful. But, Caparros said, "It is out of question for the director," who's being held hostage, to leave the site as long as we don't obtain something."

He said the unions "guarantee the safety of the director vis-a-vis the employees," but "if we can no longer talk to each other, there will be tensions."

France's 3M management agreed this evening "to continue the negotiations with the unions at the subprefecture of Loiret, under the sole condition that Luc Rousselet be set free," Catherine Hamon, spokeswoman for 3M France, told reporters at the Pithiviers factory.

For the unions' part, "We will ... let him go if at least one of our demands is satisfied," Caparros said. "With him, we are holding our bargaining counter. If we let him go without anything in exchange, we will be conned."

Taking managers hostage is becoming a habit for angry French workers.

Earlier this month, employees at a Sony videotape factory in southwest France detained the head of Sony France and three other executives overnight and eventually secured improved terms for workers facing layoffs.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events