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Friday, October 21, 2011

The jobs crisis hits home ― literally

Rio de Janeiro police about to enter a favela?
No, their Parisian counterparts entering  my
apartment building to confront a hostage taker
For someone whose main activity deals with workforce management, the surreal situation I found myself in this week couldn't have brought any closer the  main HR issue facing Europe and the United States: high and increasing unemployment figures.

Last Tuesday, close to 12 noon. I was in my home office, expecting a courier bringing me documents from a client when the phone rang.

"Sir," the courier's voice sounded stressed out, " I can't get to your apartment building, it's been cordoned off by the police."

"What? Why?" I asked, wondering if he got the address wrong.

"They say that some people have been taken hostages in the Pôle emploi office."

The Pôle emploi is the French government agency dealing with (un)employment and the local jobs center is indeed housed in my apartment building, a mainly residential complex that occupies a large block north of the Bastille area (see map below.) I had been working from my home office the whole morning and just like a cheated husband is the last one to find out about his situation, I had no idea something was amiss in my building.  I put a jacket on and went downstairs.

At the main gate I saw several cops who asked me the way to the concierge. I explained they needed a special key to get there but I, as a resident had one, so I'd let them through. "But the concierge is not available now, it's her break from noon to 2:00 pm. What is that you want?" They explained that there was one man, clearly a desperate jobless fellow, keeping some people hostages (the things one would do to get a job) and they were wondering if there wasn't another way to get to the Pôle Emploi offices (they had amassed their forces at the main entrance, on Rue Pelée.

The quiet and peace of Rue Pelée, just a stone's throw
away from the Bastille, shattered as an armed unemployed
man takes hostages in the jobs center office located
in my apartment building

"Oh yes, " I replied. "There is an entrance from Rue Amelot, but they don't use it anymore, so you guys can force your way through there." And the good law-abiding citizen I am took them there (# 2 on the map) and then retraced my steps back to the main gate on Rue Pelée (# A on the map). As soon as I came out I felt as if I I had stepped onto a movie set. The street swarmed with cops, elite forces clad like Robocop, it was closed all the way to the Boulevard Richard Lenoir and one of the cops said, "Sir, if  you leave the area you won't be able to come back." I called the courier who was stuck beyond the police lines. Since I needed the documents urgently to prepare for a client meeting, I took the chance. Once I got the delivery from the courier I stood mesmerized by the BFM reporter describing what was happening within my building. There were other reporters and press photographers. (# 3, on the map)

"You know," I said to the BFM TV reporter Rachid Mbarki, "there's another way closer to the building, and the cops haven't closed it, why don't you go there?" I was stunned to hear the reply: he was happy to cover the news from a safe distance. Some other reporters, including one from AFP (Agence France Presse) though, overheard me and asked me to lead them. So I did my second good deed of the day, this time in favor of the free (if not courageous) press, and walked with them down boulevard Richar Lenoir towards Bastille and then right on Allée Verte which runs parallel to Rue Pelée. Right in front of my building there is a passage which allows the two streets to communicate and, although a policeman was stationed there not allowing access to Rue Pelée, at least you had a nice vantage point of the entrance to Pôle emploi to see all the action from up close. (# 4 on the map) At the same time the other BFM TV guy was at least several hundred yards away.

Since I couldn't enter my building from the Rue Pelée entrance, I decided to check whether the one on Rue Amelot, which runs along the Boulevard Beaumarchais was free. So I turned into Rue Amelot, walked up and miracle of miracles, no cops, the entrance (# 2 on the map) was wide open, even more surprising since it leads straight to one of the Pôle emploi side entrances where I found the cops I had led to still there. They looked scary in their Robocop attire ready to barge in should the phone negotiations with the hostage taker fail, or things go nasty. I passed them and entered my building from the inside thus allowing me to go back to my apartment.

I switched the TV on and it felt so surreal to see my street and building making the headlines. The hostage taker was an unemployed fellow who said he was desperate and was ready to use his gun if attacked. It felt like being in a movie, except that the movie was real and taking place right where I live. Well, I didn't have much time to muse further since I had to leave for a meeting at 2 pm. So I left from where I entered, the Rue Amelot entrance, once more passing Robocop & Co., but this time the police had finally realized there was a weak link and had stationed two officers at the entrance who gave me the same warning I was given two hours ago at the Rue Pelée entrance: "If you leave you won't be able to come back." When asked how much longer this circus was going to last, one of them shook his head seriously and said, "We've had situations where it lasted two days." Two days without entering my building! They must be joking. Well, I managed to fool them once, I'm sure I'll manage a second time, I thought.

When I returned after 3:00 pm, the standoff was still on. The whole two-block area was cordoned off , all the way to where the boulevards Richard Lenoir and Voltaire meet (top right angle on the map.) I had only one thing on my mind - how to get back into my apartment? Suddenly a stroke of genius hit me. The underground parking garage. Since the gate is locked and only opens when cars come in or out, maybe there won't be any cops there. I walked to Rue Amelot, and saw that the street had inexplicably not been closed, and apart from the two cops I saw on my out, there was nobody in front of the parking entrance (# 1 on the map.) A few minutes later, a car came out and before the gates closed I slipped in. From inside the bowels of the building I went to the basement area and from there one of the elevators took me to my apartment. I felt particularly proud of myself to have fooled the police security system twice in as many hours.

The drama stage. The double red lines indicate access closed by
police. Strangely enough, they closed all the way up where
Bd Richard Lenoir meets Rue St-Sébastien, but not much closer,
the Rue Amelot, from where I managed to enter and leave
unimpeded more than once 

An hour later, the hostage taker surrendered. It turned out his weapon was a toy, "without even bullets" as my neighbor said. He just wanted to draw the attention of the nation on the plight of the unemployed, he claimed as he was being led away.

What to make of all of this? Three comments:

1. The economic crisis which is leading to such acts of desperation is not letting up as governments are unable to fix the debt crisis (see my post on it last March) and try to resort to misguided so-called labor reform policies (see another post on this topic from July 2010- nothing has changed since then.) Expect to see more of this kind of behavior, but please do it somewhere else, not in my building, or at least not when I'm in residence.

2. The police action showed a lot of incompetence (my fooling their security scheme twice is ample proof of that) and overkill. 150 men armed as if they were about to land on Tripoli for just one crazy fellow? Come on! And, just look at the map above: what sense is there in blocking traffic (and people access to their homes) two blocks away when at the same time Rue Amelot which has a direct entrance to Pôle Emploi is left completely free? Illogical!

3. The press didn't fare any better with that reporter from BFM TV insisting on remaining as far from the action as possible. Watch a video of him "reporting" from a safe distance. Now I understand the meaning of "armchair journalism".

4. For someone who spends part of the year in violence-ridden Rio de Janeiro, which I have known for eight years now, the whole affair was quite ironic:  I never experienced in the Marvelous City anything remotely  comparable to what I saw in the City of Light this week. Sometimes true violence happens where you least expect it.

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