Fired for… Blogging?

The French blogging community is currently abuzz following announcement that a high school principal, whose blog had reached a fair amount of popularity in its time, had been officially revoked due solely to his blogging activities.

Now, a few of you are probably incensed at such blatant disrespect for civil liberties, all the while wondering how you say “first amendment” in French, while others will object that employers are free to do what they want and getting dooced nowadays is hardly newsworthy stuff.

Here is where both would be wrong and what makes this situation very particular:

First off, being a school principal in France means being directly employed by the government as a civil servant (the infamous fonctionnaires). This work status implies an incredible number of particularities, both advantages and constraints. For instance, such employment cannot be terminated for any reasons other than gross misconduct on the part of the employee who is otherwise guaranteed a job for life. On the other hand, working for the State and being, in essence, representatives of the State, employees are held to what the French call “devoir de réserve“: an obligation to remain loyal to the State’s institutions and not harm its standing by one’s declarations or actions in public. Doing so being the one major ground for losing your job and status.

Ironically, this ground for termination, commonly used in countries where average work contracts do not require anything more than a notice anyway, would land any private company foolish enough to use it here in very hot water (ever heard of French labor laws? They make US HR execs wake up in a puddle of cold sweat in the middle of the night). If you are the government, though: it’s ok.

The actual definition of what is acceptable behaviour on the part of civil servants is extremely murky (“flexible”, depending on how you look at it), depends on your position in the hierarchy (higher-ups being under much tighter scrutiny than file and rank employees) and relies on moral grounds that one would easily qualify as “subjective” at best. Maintaining reasonably discreet extra-marital affairs or embezzling a few million euros is usually OK… Bad-mouthing your hierarchy, taking a strong public political stand or performing in a porn flick: you’re in trouble.

But my point is not to discuss the fairness of this rule. It is balanced up by a number of perks that make such positions highly sought out by stability-craving people. At any rate, it is the Law, and people are free to remain in the private sector if they are not satisfied with the full package and its obligations.

Fine, you say, that guy probably wrote highly inappropriate stuff, reflecting badly on his position and his school, got caught and got just what he deserved.

This was no small decision either, as revoking a public school’s principal takes no less than the Secretary of Education’s signature (if I’m not mistaken, school principals are only two levels down in the hierarchy). Indeed, after careful review of his case, a “college of his peers” came to the conclusion that this man had been maintaining a pornographic blog littered with obscene pictures, no less! You wouldn’t want such a guy anywhere near your kids, now would you?

Actually, the many mothers with school-age kids in his readership, unanimously wished their offspring could attend school under the supervision of this man they knew only through the content of his blog. Such was the impression of sensibility, care and dedication for the job he gave through occasional anonymous recollections of his life as a school professional.

As for pornographic content: they were the occasional picking through bizarre Google queries and a few scattered picture of underwear models. After all, being a school principal, one is no less of a man with a heart beating for beautiful things and beautiful things wearing them. If lingerie models were pornographic material, then behind every Victoria’s Secret catalog’s subscription stands the depraved soul of a perverted deviate who should be barred from public employment at once. So he had a few pictures of handsome men wearing boxers and showing six-packs, to which he usually added very restrained yet appreciative commentaries that would barely make an impression at a formal social function.

Did I say men? Oh, yea, the models were male. Because this one school’s principal is gay. But surely this couldn’t have anything to do with the exceptionally harsh way his case was handled. This is the 21st century, no government would dare consider discrimination against an employee, based exclusively on his sexual orientation. Or would they?

Unofficial records abound with endless stories of other French school employees (teachers, principals…) questioned on inappropriate conducts, sometimes bordering on the criminal, merely given but a slap on the wrist and shuffled around to a position where they wouldn’t bring any more trouble to the hierarchy (hmn, rings a bell?). Overall, far from using excessive authority, the administration has made it a tradition to side with its employees beyond reason, rarely, if ever, going farther than premature honourable discharge in the most unpardonable cases.

How in that case could an anonymous blog with no questionable content whatsoever bring to its author immediate termination with no benefits and interdiction from seeking employment in a public office ever again (very poor career prospects to boot, given his age, line of employment and negative publicity around the affair)…

This was the question spontaneously raised by a number of Frenchspeaking bloggers, while national press simultaneously started to take an interest in the affair. Soon enough, the news and indignation had spread to hundreds of blogs, snowballing into more media exposure and interestingly prompting an unusually fast retraction in one major newspaper, apologizing for the many factual inaccuracies and slightly slanted tone of their original coverage (due likely more to technical incompetence than actual evil intent). This grassroots movement and the momentum it is gaining amidst the online community was brilliantly summed-up by another prominent figure of the French blogging scene: lawyer by profession, Maître Eolas writes in a tongue-in-cheek open letter to the French Secretary of Education about the danger this small bureaucratic oversight from his team and further refusal to correct the course could turn into a very nasty communication crisis and political assassination at the hands of the blogging crowds.

The warning is not entirely unfounded, seeing how his colleague, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres, Secretary of State for Culture was recently used to mop the floor of the Assembly where he was presenting his project for a DRM-flavoured law on intellectual property, a supposedly guaranteed home run ending in political shambles, due in no small part to an unexpected uprising relayed by the French internet masses.

One of the main difference here is the general consensus: the sanction is wholly unjustified and tainted with suspicions of homophobia (although I think it’s long been replaced by petty bureaucratic stupidity as its main propeller). At any rate, not something the Secretary would want to see making headlines any more than it is.

Which is why it will be very interesting to see how things unfold in the near future, when the principal’s appeal is reviewed by the Secretary of Education.

First, because Justice and the career of an innocent man are on the line. And for once it would be nice to see the proverbial little guy jam the unstoppable cogs of mindless kafkaian bureaucracy, as perfectly embodied by the French education system.

But also because it will be a meaningful illustration of the power, if any, held by blogs in France as a mean of instant grassroots movement building and political pressure at the highest level. A power that has been amply demonstrated in the US and other parts of the world, but is still unclear here, where blogs are still overwhelmingly perceived as prepubescent altars to bad taste and horrendous syntax.

P.S.: another post in English about this affair.

P.P.S.: and another

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