How to Fire in France

Back in 2001, when it was fully dawning on me that starting a business is France was about the stupidest way to position oneself for living in this beautiful country, I stumbled onto that pure French moment that all entrepreneurs dread, the Firing Ritual.

Four months earlier, my system administrator had had a stroke while we were in the middle of an office conversation. It took me a few moments to realize that his glazed look and low droning noises were not his typical ones and, fortunately, I had the wits to bundle him into my car and drive the four minutes to the emergency room where he was immediately taken in and cared for.

(I was told subsequently that frenchpersonnes don’t drive ill employees to emergency rooms, but call the emergency service, the SAMU, to come and get them. I was also told that if I had indeed done that, the 15 extra minutes before he got to the ER would probably have put him in a vegetative state for life. In the context of Life in France, I did the “wrong” thing, but I’m glad I did.)

This left me, CEO of an early early days (founded 1995) Internet Service Provider company in the south of France, with no one to look after our servers. Fortunately, I had recently lent part of my office area to a young internet startup (my son & co.) who happily replied “OUI!” when asked if they could do server administration. They plunged eagerly into the challenge and I’m happy to say that my operations problem was quickly solved.

Which just left the other problem.

Four months later it was clear that that employee would not ever come back to work for me. To the doctors, it wasn’t clear whether he would ever work again in front of a computer screen. After quickly leafing through the 17,000 pages of the French Code du Travail (Work Laws), I realized that I would have to officially “fire” him, or else, at any point in the next 40 years, he could reappear, ask for his job back and I would have no choice but to accommodate.

This may seem like a picky detail for those of you who have never been there, but one hears the stories of employees who come back after 12-month’s sick-leave on a beach in Thailand and WANT THEIR JOB BACK. In fact, pages 14,166-14,480 of The Code clearly explain all the various combinations and permutations in play here, but to simplify, you (the Boss) either give him his old job back or you give him your kid’s college fund and half the office furniture. Even more interesting, if in the months gone by, you went and hired Someone Else to do the job, you are obliged to maintain both employees, even if there is only one job opening. One is expected to create jobs, not wealth.

In France, you don’t just say, “Sorry Mate, you’re fired.” There were long consultations with my accountant, my lawyer, and the local Chamber of Commerce (who have many experts on payroll who have never hired or fired anyone in their long, illustrious career of explaining to people like me how to do it), and only after there was consensus on how to go about it, did I feel comfortable starting The Firing Process. This is a multi-step task, even for a very, very small business with 1 or 2 employees (like I was).

Step 1: Carefully choose the nominal reason for firing. Mine was obvious: it was for economic reasons. The Internet Bubble had burst and things were going downhill fast.
Step 2: Send a certified letter to the employee inviting him to a “Firing Interview”. He must receive this letter no less than 5 days, no more that 10 days, before the date of interview. The post office is on strike? See pages 16,121-147 of The Code for supplemental steps that you must take. Briefly, you start over.
Step 3: The Firing Interview. The employee has the right to be accompanied by a representative of The Union. You, the Boss, must be alone.

Why? (Really dumb question!)
The employee is an exploited member of the slaving underclass. He needs professional, trained counsel to protect him from…

Me, the Boss, dirty bourgeois pig who eats babies for breakfast.

Step 3bis: I read from a prepared script. “Sorry, my friend, thing’s are going badly, revenues down 45%, profits even more, I am obliged to work as a baby-sitter on weekends to make ends meet, etcetc”. Employee looks at Union man, who looks around, sees that there is no good office furniture to be had, says to me, “OK, just give him the Retraining Agreement” and I say “Huh?” and he says, “That’s OK, I guess, let’s go”, and they do. Firing Interview over.

Step 4: I call my lawyer frantically, asking, “What’s a Retraining Agreement?”

She says, “Merde! Did we forget the Retraining Agreement?”

“Yes”.

“Hmm”. And then, “Better start all over. Re-invite him to a Firing Interview. Order a Retraining Agreement form from the Retraining Administration. That way, you’re covered if he decides to attack you for faulty firing procedure”.

Step 5: I send off another certified letter fixing a date for Firing Interview 2. I order a Retraining Agreement from the correct Administration. This could only be done through the Minitel, that interesting bit of 1970′s technology that the French telephone monopoly imposed on the French people until the floodgates of the Internet opened too wide, ie, about 5 years after every other developed countries embraced the Internet. With all due credit to French bureaucracy, the document, all 26 pages of it, arrived rapidly.

Its instructions were emblematic of the french approach to supporting business and businesspersonnes: “Pages 3,6, 19 are to be given to the fired employee to be returned to us by him within 30 days of the firing interview. Pages 11-15 are to be kept for your records for 7 years. Pages 1,2,4,6,10, and 22 must be signed by you and returned to us in the enclosed envelope #1 within 3 days. Pages 5,7,8,9 are to be completed and signed by you AND the fired employee and returned to the tax services in the enclosed envelope #2 before the end of the present quarter.”

Step 6: Another firing interview. A different union man accompanies my employee. I repeat the litany of woe. Everyone nods heads thoughtfully. I pass over the Retraining Agreement (well, pages 5,7,8,9, anyway). They are signed and enveloped. I give a severance check equal to what I paid myself for the 24 previous months to the employee.

He looks at me thoughtfully, as though to say, “If you hadn’t saved my life, I probably would have gone for the deed to your house, too.”

I smile, realizing that the reason most small businesses in France fail quickly is because the alternative would be to succeed, and success might mean hiring. Few people who hire once in France, hire twice.

Comments (22) to “How to Fire in France”

  1. First, it should read “Code du travail” not “Code de travail”.
    Then, even if I do agree that we have lengthy administrative procedures, there are there for a reason. In the US, you can be fired overnight, for no apparent reason. Maybe your boss didn’t like your tie. Maybe he just tossed a coin. We have protections for the individual, which is something that anyone should value. you can’t just lay down someone with no reason.
    Your lawyer was obviously not competent, but is it the French system fault? Not really… Sue the lawyer for a professional fault.

  2. Holy shit! I love france, now I know all I need to do is get work documents and move there!!! J’aime la côte d’azur!! Villefranche est ma favori :)

  3. Math,

    With all due respect, the procedures are ridiculous, even if there is merit in underlying social thought. So many people here won\’t hire because of them.
    Are you a prof by any chance?

    Quant à la faute de français, merci, je corrige.

  4. RE: Math

    In the US, we have this thing called freedom. I’m free to employ anyone I want, when I want, how I want. You’re free to stay or leave at your discretion. It’s my freedom to choose employees that keeps employees productive. It’s the employees’ freedom to leave at will that keeps me treating employees properly. It’s an element of free market economics at work, and one of the underpinning to our very successful society.

    I’ll take freedom over security any day.

  5. Math, it’s not “your” job. The job belongs to the employer. If you want to “own” a job, go start your own business and actually create a job. Then you’ll own it and can do what you like with it. Although, I’m sure this entire comment will be lost on you.

  6. Dead right, it’s a complete brake on hiring once you understand the situation (speaking as somebody who once had a business in France and came out of it penniless).

    Unfortunately hiring and firing is just one aspect of the many surprises for the entrepreneur in France.

    The US situation obviously favours the employer, while the employee is king in France. The UK is almost equitable, but I’m still not sure if that makes up for the miserable weather…

  7. Well this experience sounds very real and I’m pretty proud that we have a system in place which protects employees. Better it’s hard to fire someone than too easy, in my opinion. If there’s good reasons, the person still gets fired.
    good luck to you nonetheless

  8. There is absolutely no “merit in the underlying social thought”. They’re not protecting an individual. They’re extorting one individual for the benefit of another. It’s just as arbitrary as firing.

  9. Jacques: what about protection for the employer? Why don’t they count in your view?

    Without an employer, there is no job. Some of you would do yourselves well to keep that simple truth in mind. Some of you would do yourselves well to drop the victim complex. Embrace more freedom. It’s really not that bad. You don’t need the government to hold your little hands. Have a little faith in yourselves.

  10. The french system sounds extremely broken.

    But for americans out there, let me explain the Nordic model. It works like this:

    The “social thought” in the Nordic model is to minimise the *risk* involved in working, both for the employee and the employer. Protecting jobs is not important.

    The employer has to pay unemployment insurance for the employee. If the employee gets fired, the state will ensure a certain percentage of his salary for a fixed period into the future.

    Insurance is a fixed cost of doing business (a tax) which ensures that the above scenario will (should?) not happen from the point of view of the employer.

    From the employees point of view, mandatory unemployment insurance means that employees will try riskier jobs than they would otherwise try. (Riskier in terms of the chance of getting fired).

    This is especially true for smart people with little money. A newly educated smart guy with a family will, unless some insurance is available, choose a safer low-paying job over an unsafe high-paying job. So society wins.

    If insurance is not mandatory and paid for by the employer, the employee will tend to not pay for insurance, leading him to favor safer jobs etc.

    So the idea is that the people in the Nordic model will be less risk-averse something that benefits the industry and society as a whole.

    And a last point. Quite a lot of the advances humankind has made involves reducing and managing risk.

  11. I was going to suggest that you go out of business, and have your son expand his business into the market niche you used to occupy. Then, you could be his employee, and he’s forced to take care of you for life!

  12. Chris,

    Lovely.

    In the end that is almost what happened. My son took over the business and is doing well, although he will not take on any employees, for which India and Roumania are somewhat grateful.

    I hang around as an unpaid cheerleader, while I write a book on the cultivation of purple asparagus in 11th-century Roussillon.

  13. France has, indeed, gone too far in protection for the employee, however, the US is definitely too far in the other direction. Job security should be a given unless either the company is doing badly or you personally are doing badly (I’m excluding force majeur things like company relocations here), this doesn’t exist in the US.

    I’m not suggesting the UK has it right but the balance of allowing business to do the things needed to keep working and protecting the employee from unscrupulous employers is not too bad.

  14. Unscrupulous employers exist, but in my twenty-plus years of work, lazy employees are in far greater supply, in the US, UK, and the EU! Most parts of the US have unemployment insurance as well, and the cost is covered 100% by the employer. In my home state, the only times the fired employee is not eligible for unemployment insurance is if the employee quits, or is fired for cause (i.e., theft, improper conduct, harassment, lying about education/experience, etc.). Employees in the US are covered quite well.

    The problem with forcing employers to keep employees is that the growth in the economy of the US for the last ten years has been nearly entirely in the small business (1-25 employees), not the larger companies. These people are funding these companies with their own personal funds, not government taxes or venture capital. Why force me to take money out of my family’s savings account to pay an employee to sit?

  15. As a small business owner in the US (about 10 employees), I think that the US system works just fine. The benefit of the US system to me (the employer) is that my employees stay motivated and work hard. The benefit to the employee is that their company is successful due to their performance, and their job security is improved because of this. They realize that if the company fails due to their lack of performance, then everyone in the company will lose their job.

  16. Actually, there is Unemployment Insurance in the US, also. It is intended to prevent the “coin toss” firings Math suggests. An employer can have an insurance claim made against them unless the termination was for criminal behavior or incompetence on the job. Additionally, the employer can be sued (challenged, if you will), by the former employee if the employer named incompetence or criminal conduct falsely. However, an employee can only claim Unemployment Insurance payments if they held the job for 6 months or more and it is only a percentage of their average wage/salary.

  17. why should job security be a given atz if an employer is smart they wont fire someone for a stupid reason because word will get out they are a bad boss and wont beable to get many more employees. most buisnesses these days realize that with no workers it is hard to get work done so they try to attract and keep the best workers they can.

  18. Performing the job you were hired to do, and performing it well is your job security here in the states.
    I have been fired once, and I can say it had nothing to do with my performance.
    I went out and got another job. I didn’t sit on my butt crying about how “unfair” it was. I didn’t receive any unemployment insurance. I got off my butt, and found another job.
    If you’re working for a tyrant then you quit, and go somewhere else.
    It is not, or it should not be the roll of government to babysit the people it serves. The roll of government should be to protect the people.

    “Government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan

  19. I’ve worked 14 years in the US and have lost exactly ZERO jobs. My compensation has risen every year over year for the last 14. How exactly is this favoring the employer? I need some help figuring out how I’m being exploited. Pouvez-vous m’aider?

  20. If those laws continue for France, eventually there will no longer be private businesses and the government will HAVE to run everything. Thus begins the next step towards true Fascism.

    Also, in the U.S. I have never been fired from any job I have had. I guess my problem must be that I give them no reason to fire me. Employers are not the souless demons incompetant people make them out to be. If you do a good job, you are rewarded well. If you do a poor job, you are not rewarded. It’s true though, in America you can be fired if you are incompetant, but if someone is incompetant at what they are doing, he or she should be doing something else.

  21. Just to note, this was not in response to Keith, it was in response to Math.

  22. >Thus begins the next step towards true Fascism.

    Wow, Jonathan, I think the first several steps towards true fascism have happened over the last several years in one large country I can think of, but I do not think it is France.

    Addendum: the comments here are now being dominated by US right-wingers France=Fascism type remarks, which is an ironic change from last century US right-wingers France=Communism type comments. Out of respect for what remains decent in this world, I am closing down the comments channel.