A French industrial tribunal hearing is, in some respects, a surprisingly informal affair. Four Prud’hommes, two employers and two employees who have been elected to hold this position (all salaried employees are eligible to go and vote in these elections, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has) preside over a small salle d’audience in civilian clothing, with the addition of a medal worn proudly around their necks on a red and blue ribbon. The lawyers representing the employees and employers whose cases are being heard wear black gowns with a white ruffle at the neck.
After a roll call at 1pm, the cases are heard one by one, and lawyers, employees, journalists, even members of the general public are free to come and go as they please as long – as they do so discreetly – and to report on the content of the proceedings. In sixth place, my turn didn’t come until 5.30pm. I read, I paced, I chatted to my lawyer. I paced some more. I drank too much coffee.
Lawyers have explained to me that the prud’hommes don’t necessarily have any legal background, and make their decisions based on their combined experience and common sense, decisions which are therefore often open to challenge and taken to the appeals court, where a more traditional, rigorous legal debate can take place. After hearing the arguments put forward orally by both parties’ lawyers the prud’hommes review the supporting documents and written arguments and deliver their decision. Sometimes this is immediate, but in my case the result will be announced in a week’s time. I think this had as much to do with the fact that the session was running late and there were several cases to be heard after mine, as it did with the complexity of the subject up for debate.
How did I feel when the hearing was over? Frustrated.
Because after all that waiting, when the time came, our lawyers were asked to be brief. It seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. I didn’t speak, except to confirm a couple of minor details. I was being spoken for, criticised, but able to do little more than wince or grimace when I disagreed with what was said. And most importantly, I realised that this case is based on words, not actions. My words. Commenters’ words.
And oh how they can be twisted.
No-one is saying that I did a bad job. No-one is saying I was guilty of absenteeism or slacked off or exhibited any sort of disloyal behaviour in the office. My actual performance in my job as secretary to a partner seems to be a moot point. I was fired because when my blog was discovered (or rather its existence reported to my boss by someone who worked with me) my employer read that I sometimes blogged from work, when I had nothing better to do. That a passage about meeting my lover in a hotel implied that I might have lied about my whereabouts on two half days, a year previously. That by blogging about work at all (however rarely I actually did this, and regardless of the fact that I did so under the cloak of anonymity) I was being disloyal to my employer and putting the reputation of the firm at risk.
In addition to making this point – and I think his exact words were “if she’d confessed to murder on her blog, even if there was no actual proof of any wrongdoing, should she go to prison?” – my lawyer used jurisprudence to argue that an employee is not some sort of robot whose time is not their own. The internet has broken down the barriers between the personal and the professional, and previous rulings have shown that workers do have the right to send the odd personal email or use the internet for non work-related surfing, as long as they are doing their job. He argued that freedom of speech permits a worker to discuss what goes on in the workplace, as long as the line is not crossed into libel. Although I was told that the firm objected to certain passages on my blog, I only discovered what these were when the supporting documents for the tribunal case were sent to us a little over a month ago and I saw which extracts they had translated into to French. Clearly if there had been anything libellous, I’d have been sued by now. But either they’re not, or it’s impossible to demonstrate that the people I described were identifiable.
So far, so good.
Predictably, it’s the arguments made by my former employer’s lawyer which I found objectionable. True, they had nothing to support their allegations that I had damaged the firm’s reputation, or even caused any distress to any members of staff prior to my dismissal. The two or three colleagues who had signed a short statement were simply confirming that they knew of the blog’s existence and that they had seen me consult it at work. So in the absence of any hard facts, my words were used against me. Translated into French, taken out of context, a couple of lines from a post, a comment written by me, a comment written by a reader. No clarification about who wrote what, or when. Taken in isolation you can pretty much make words mean whatever you want them to.
So I had to sit there, seething, while my own words were made to lie.
“The subject which is preying on my mind, to the exclusion of all else, is the fraught atmosphere at work. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to exercise caution about what I say.”
“Now, when I have a discussion with my colleagues over lunch, I no longer even know myself whether I’m picking their brains for material for a future post or just having a normal friendly conversation. Unwittingly they have become guinea pigs…”
These two little snippets, taken out of context and wrenched from their rightful place in my blog’s history (September 05 and October 04) were used to imply that just before I left, in April 2006, my blog CAUSED an awkward atmosphere at work. That colleagues had started to be aware of it and now lived in constant fear of what I might say about them. That this made my continued presence in the company impossible. I was pleased when one of the prud’hommes piped up and asked whether there was any evidence to support this, such as written complaints by employees, which of course there weren’t, because hardly anyone knew about the blog, and aside from a couple of descriptions of my superiors, and this isolated example from July 2004, no-one had actually been written about. Ever. But this only mollified me a little.
Because in fact, in the first instance, I was explaining that things were tense with my boss but I realised I should be careful not to talk about that on the blog, in a post where I then went on to provide my readers with a quiz. In the second, I was talking about the effect of blogging on my life, and saying that I sometimes tested my stories out on my friends in conversation to see if they were funny before I wrote them up on the blog.
Anyone who has read petite anglaise knows that I didn’t make a habit of writing character assassinations of my colleagues and friends. But I can’t expect the prud’hommes to read an entire blog in a foreign language to convince them of this fact. Or to know that the words which followed “guinea pigs” were “even though they know nothing about petite anglaise”. Context is all.
The masterstroke at the end was when my ex-employer’s lawyer congratulated me on my book deal, prompting raised eyebrows from all present. The implication being that because I haven’t suffered enough as a result of my sacking, that makes everything alright. Let’s just gloss over those five months which intervened between my sacking and the deal, shall we? The ten kilos I lost through worry. The sleepless nights and constant crying. The apartment purchase which almost fell through. It doesn’t matter if I was wrongfully dismissed or not. Who needs principles when they have something else to fall back on?
Which rather begs the question: if I’d been burgled, but won the lottery the following day, should the thief have been let off scott free because I could afford to replace everything?