My favourite French business book is Bonjour Paresse by Corinne Maier. An underling at Electricite de France, her book suddenly became a bestseller in 2004 when an idiot manager at the company threatened to sack her for writing such a scurrilous guide to office life. This led to a front-page story in Le Monde and thousands of extra sales. She has a very cynical view of the corporate world, which includes a list of 10 commandments. Her gems include:
1. You are a modern day slave. There is no scope for personal fulfilment. You work for your pay cheque at the end of the month, full stop. 2. What you do is pointless. You can be replaced from one day to the next by any cretin sitting next to you. So work as little as possible and spend time [not too much, if you can help it] cultivating your personal network so that you're untouchable when the next restructuring comes around.
3. You're not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track. 4. Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. You'll only have to work harder for what amounts to peanuts. 5. Make a beeline for the most useless positions - research, strategy and business development - where it is impossible to assess your "contribution to the wealth of the firm". Avoid "on the ground" operational roles like the plague.
I was reminded of her book when I heard the news this week that another France Telecom worker had taken his life. There have been a spate of suicides at the partially state-run firm. Anyone who has ever had to deal with France Telecom might feel like committing suicide, or perhaps more satisfying, murder on a massive scale and widespread revenge, possibly involving torture. Their support staff have perfected the art of keeping you waiting, just long enough that you think you are getting somewhere, then sending you round in circles so that half an hour after you started the call, you end up back with the first person you spoke to, who now sounds even more bored and surprised than she did the first time, and cuts you off with a sudden shriek.
Of course, suicide is no laughing matter. France Telecom's management is trying to shrug off the statistics, saying that with a firm of 100,000 people, a number of deaths are sadly inevitable. But 24 deaths in 18 months seems more than careless, particularly as most of the notes point the finger at the firm and not other factors. The latest victim, a 51-year-old, blamed the "atmosphere" at work before throwing himself off a motorway bridge near Annecy. Like other deaths at the former state monopoly, he had recently switched jobs - in his case moving to a call centre where he faced performance objectives. Maybe he objected to putting people on hold, then randomly cutting them off.
Union leaders don't agree that the deaths are a coincidence. They claim that the deaths have been caused by management. "There was a real indifference, no humanity - all they talked about was numbers and workers were treated like sausage meat," Patrice Diochet, the local union leader told reporters. France Telecom was partially privatised in 1997 and two-thirds of its staff are still civil servants. This must make it particularly difficult to manage: there are few things as truculent as fonctionnaires, who don't take lightly to be treated like saucisson. The company has agreed to hire 200 counsellors and set up a suicide hotline. One can only imagine how frustrating that must be to deal with.
Didier Lombard, the chief executive of France Telecom, is shrugging off calls for his resignation, but he should beware. Earlier this year, French workers showed great initiative and "captured" various bosses that they held responsible for job losses. In March, the boss of Sony in France was taken hostage by striking workers at the company's factory in Pontoux-sur-l'Adrour in south-west France. The plant's 300 workers are to be laid off as part of the electronics giant's plans to save ¥100 billion (Dh4.08bn). The company has so far refused any compensation.
Union leaders said that preventing the boss from leaving was the only way to get management to listen to them. "We hope that this time our voices will be heard," says union representative Patrick Achaguer. Fat chance. The Sony head was allowed to leave the site only when the French government stepped in to force management to return to the negotiating table. This followed the seizure of two bosses from Michelin, the tyre manufacturer, who were held for two days by workers trying to stop a factory closure.
Such affirmative action is all very well, but ultimately doomed to failure. The workers may be momentarily enjoying the ultimate downtrodden labourer's fantasy - capturing the boss - but their efforts will be in vain. I suggest they return to their dog-eared copies of Mademoiselle Maier's book and read her final commandment: "Tell yourself that the absurd ideology underpinning this corporate [expletive deleted] cannot last forever. It will go the same way as the dialectical materialism of the communist system. The problem is knowing when."