The day started like every other. The sun rose with an energetic burst in the Dordogne. I ate breakfast and fired up the laptop, deciding which emails to deal with first and picking up the unsolvable issues from the day before. There was a familiar toot-toot from the yellow van that held the smiling post-lady. This usually meant a package that could not fit in our letter box, or a new bank card that had to be signed for. I signed for a letter and immediately wondered why a registered letter that clearly did not hold a bank card had demanded my paw print. That was when it all started.
The aforementioned letter, in French, consisted of only two paragraphs and one word jumped out at me such was its unfamiliarity – ‘licenciement’. I also understood that I was being asked to attend a meeting of some sort. In Paris. In five days time. Why Paris I thought? I had never been to Paris with this company. They did not even have an office in Paris. My level of paranoia was high enough at this point for me to fire off an email to the HR department that had signed the letter. I enquired what this meeting was about. “It is a meeting to discuss your dismissal”… and all yesterday’s unsolvable issues melted into unimportance.
Within the letter there was also a statement advising me to bring along an ‘avocat’ (a legal advisor) but, and it’s a big but, I was only allowed to select one from a list to be provided by the ‘mairie’ (mayor’s office) in Paris. How was I supposed to get this list? Drive to Paris (six hours away), queue and ask for the paper format (there was no emailable list I had been told). I felt I was being discouraged from the start. Why were they making it so hard? Why didn’t they just send me the list? So I did what anyone else would do. I hit Google. I searched ‘licenciement’ and ‘Paris’ and ‘avocat’ but the information was confusing and panic-inducing. So I decided to look for a professional ‘avocat’ to see if I would benefit from paying for decent legal advice. Google supplied several results and I emailed the first few. One replied immediately and asked me to call her. “Ok. Send me your employment contract, a copy of the ‘licenciement’ letter and I’ll get back to you later.” I did as requested and she called me back. “I can help you,” she said. “Here is what might happen and what your company might do.” She listed a lot of stuff that I had earlier filed under ‘panic-inducing’. She was scaring me. But then she scared me further by explaining her costs. Two hundred and seventy Euros per hour…and the clock was already ticking. She would email me a contract to sign and email back. It would probably amount to eight hours of work. It did not include tax. I was just about switched on enough to realize that this “legal savior” was going to cost me thousands of Euros. I knew that there was a list of free ‘avocats’ waiting for me in the mairie’s office in Paris. Pro-bono work they call it. The listed ‘avocats’ would accompany me and advise me for the duration of the meeting for free. For love. Well not love, as they receive payment from the government. But more importantly they did not need paying an extortionate amount of cash.
I searched for an online list of available pro-bono ‘avocats’ for the Paris area. I found about a hundred, all of whom would be able to help me at the meeting in Paris. As I started to text and email the contacts, I received a lot of replies I would normally file under “Excuses”. “Sorry, I’m too busy.” “Sorry, that’s not my department.” “Sorry, I no longer practice.” “Sorry, ‘licenciement’ is not my specialty.” I could almost see the facial expressions and the shrug of the shoulders. Just as I was thinking about going it alone to the meeting, I received a call from someone who was willing to help me. “Great!” I said, “Shall we meet a few hours before the meeting and I can explain my fears and my several thousand questions?” “Non Monsieur.” he told me. “We are having the meeting now, by telephone.” So we talked. Or he did really, telling me that in the meeting my company would request I sign a form to confirm I had attended the meeting. “What else?” I said. “You will be given two options and you will have to select one of them. That is all Monsieur.” he said. “We will meet five minutes before the meeting begins, in the street outside the office in Paris.”
I chose to drive to Paris the night before. I selected a mediocre hotel fourteen métro stops from the meeting place. If I could travel back in time, I would remove the words, ‘mediocre’ and ‘fourteen’ from that sentence, because in fact the company was paying me to travel and stay there, so I should have booked a really expensive joint within falling distance of the destination. But I was still within that company bubble, where I didn’t feel I should overstretch things. I kept telling myself, “I am still employed by them after all.”
The next morning, bright and early, (I chose to give myself two hours to cover the fourteen metro stops) I crammed a stale croissant into my mouth, grabbed a burning black coffee to-go from the hotel lobby and limped my way to the métro station. I wore a suit. I should have attended the meeting in boxer shorts and a ‘Shed 7’ T-shirt, but I was still within the company bubble and that strange thing where I thought they cared how I dressed. I had selected a nice grey number. I was thinking that at least if I dressed well, I would feel OK when they shuffled the papers, pointed to the door and asked me to send in the next poor soul. That didn’t actually happen, but it shows how my reasoning at that point was all over the place. My ‘avocat’ was duly waiting for me, outside the office on Avenue Charles De Gaulle. He looked like an ‘avocat’, with a Roman nose and swept-back white hair and I so wanted to believe that he was wearing a flowing lawyer-type gown under his green anorak.
The meeting took place within a rent-an-office. The room was clinical; the greetings were very formal. We discussed the traffic and a security alert at the airport. Then we all flipped open empty A4 pads and the real business began. I was being made redundant. It was not my fault, it was ‘économique’. My performance had been good but, I noted, not so good that I could be kept on. I had to decide whether I wanted to accept a term where I would immediately receive 75% of my salary for twelve months, or three months’ salary (as a notice period to be paid each month for three months). After that, if I had not found a job, I would receive 57% of my salary for three years. I had to sign something that stated I had understood the choices, and that was it. The meeting was over in 45 minutes. I was out the door. The ‘avocat’ shuffled off having shaken my hand, and the Paris métro beckoned.
It was all a bit of a haze. The options offered seemed odd to me. Why was one better than the other? What if I found a job? Could I still claim anything? There were still questions and I knew that, this time, Google would not provide the answers.
There is a story, where Philip Green (multi-millionaire of Top Shop fame) lost everything during the economic crash, apart from twenty thousand pounds. He took ten thousand of what he had left and went on holiday. He took time out to think. During that holiday he worked out a plan to rebuild his empire, and rebuild it he did. I definitely did not have that amount of money but I did decide to go on holiday: to think. I found a cheap hotel, a brilliant beach and plenty of sunshine, and I rejuvenated. For ten days I thought, I chilled, I wrote down ideas. Those ideas are what I am considering now. They are my starting point. I still think the ‘licenciement’ process is a strange one. I cannot see how the worker is that protected when he has to do all the hard work in finding an ‘avocat’ – and even then, how does he know how knowledgeable that ‘avocat’ is? What will I do regarding the decision offered to me during the meeting? I’m still working that one out. How quickly will I find another job? That one is with the gods. One of whom I am hoping is the god of employment.
Ian Phillips is currently compiling some self-filmed poetic monologues based on life, visit his website on