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France's Guardian of Aggrieved Workers


The conseils de prud'hommes hear out the axed and the ax-wielders

What takes place on Temptation Island doesn't exactly look like work. The reality-TV show features couples frolicking on a tropical island where scantily clad men and women try to tempt them to stray from their mates. French labor tribunals, however, have ruled that the contestants on the French version (the show originated with the Dutch) were entitled to overtime and other benefits. "We have won every case," says Jérémie Assous, a Paris lawyer who says the tribunals, known as les conseils de prud'hommes, have awarded an average $33,000 apiece to more than 100 of his clients who were contestants on the show.

In France, a summons from les prud'hommes usually brings bad news. The tribunals, which date back to the Middle Ages, rule against employers in 71 percent of the more than 200,000 cases they hear annually, according to the Justice Ministry. A suit by a disgruntled worker may seem trivial compared with strikes and boss-nappings, says Paris labor lawyer Joël Grangé. "But it's still a real worry," he says, as it adds to the inflexible labor arrangements that make companies reluctant to hire in France. In a survey for the American Chamber of Commerce in France, 87 percent of the local subsidiaries of U.S. companies said it was harder to dismiss employees in France than in most other European countries.

Judges for the prud'hommes are chosen every five years in local elections held nationwide. Half the seats are reserved for candidates nominated by unions and the other half for candidates backed by employers' groups. "I wouldn't say the judges are biased toward workers," says Yasmine Tarasewicz, a lawyer in the Paris office of Proskauer Rose who represents employers before the tribunals. French labor laws are so complex that employers often trip on technicalities such as failing to send dismissal notices by certified mail, she explains.

Most prud'hommes complaints are filed by workers dismissed for incompetence or misconduct, the only grounds for which French employees can be fired after a probation period. Workers laid off for economic reasons generally get negotiated severance packages. Most employees' lawyers receive a small upfront payment and a percentage of any award. Many dismissed workers argue that their problems were caused by deficient management, a charge Grangé says is often difficult for employers to disprove.

Not even the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Medef), an employers' association that trains companies how to avoid running afoul of the tribunals, has been spared. In May it was ordered to pay $865,000 to a former executive whom the group fired in 2008. Medef declines to comment on the ruling, which it has not appealed.

The tribunals have also figured in the case of Jérôme Kerviel, the former Société Générale trader who stood trial in June over the biggest rogue-trading loss in history. Moussa Bakir, a Paris stockbroker who carried out billions in trades for Kerviel, won a prud'hommes judgment last year restoring his $1.2 million bonus. Bakir's employer, a brokerage then owned by Société Générale, had refused to pay it, but Bakir contended he didn't know Kerviel's trades weren't authorized. Eric Cordelle, Kerviel's immediate supervisor, who was fired after the rogue trades were discovered, is challenging his dismissal before a Paris prud'hommes tribunal.

On a recent afternoon, judges from the Paris tribunal were working their way through a docket of 32 cases in a drab building near the Gare du Nord. In one courtroom, a four-judge panel heard the case of Thibault Imhoff, who was fired in 2008 after only 4 months on the job as director of the Paris campus of an arts-management school. As Imhoff fidgeted on a bench, a lawyer for the school presented a 16-page list of complaints about his performance. Imhoff's lawyer called the criticisms "absolutely unfounded" and demanded $78,000 compensation from his client's former employer. "They behaved very rudely," his lawyer said. The court will rule in October.

In the case of Temptation Island, prud'hommes judges ruled that flirting while being filmed nearly round-the-clock for 12 days qualified as work. "Attracting a member of the opposite sex requires concentration and care," France's top appeals court ruled last year in upholding an earlier tribunal ruling that lawyer Assous obtained for three contestants. French network TF1 cancelled Temptation Island last year, although a spokeswoman says the decision was unrelated to the ruling. Assous says he's now pursuing similar cases against other reality shows.

The bottom line: The conseils de prud'hommes contribute to a rigid labor system that discourages employers from hiring French workers.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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