A recent letter from Wikimedia France, annotated
Wikimédia France is one of the larger Wikimedia chapters, supported by an Association of 10 staff and a budget of ~€500K. The Association faces a crisis: growing criticism from its members, concern from the global wiki community, and 4 of 9 board members resigning. In May, its annual plan was reviewed by the FDC, the community body that reviews use of movement funds, and the chapter’s funding was reduced. The French community has compiled a timeline of events.
On July 11, in response to this criticism, the remaining chapter board shut down the chapter mailing list, sending the remarkable letter below to its members: attacking their critics, blacklisting them from membership, and threatening to sue them. They also claim a conspiracy against their ED. It is such a startling and provocative document that I have translated it here, for annotation and comments. Improvements to the translation & further annotations are welcome.
Changes from the original: Short clarifications added [in brackets]; a TOC and END note [in italics]; names of two contributors were changed to X. and Z.
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+ A response from the Wikimedia Foundation recommends a governance audit, notes it is meeting w/ the Association [the week of July 24], and reaffirms its support for the francophone community & the Wikimedia movement in France.
+ An Early General Assembly has been called by chapter members, to address these issues. To be held Aug 26–7 or Sep 2–3.
Dear members of Wikimédia France [“the Association”],
For several months and particularly in recent weeks, some members of the Wikimedia community have violently taken sides against the employees of the association and members of the board of directors, in an irrational, irresponsible, and at times legally objectionable way.
This destabilization and denigration not only has no serious or legitimate basis, but also contravenes the rules and values of the Wikimedia movement.
Faced with the excesses and lies of these detractors, in the face of their refusal of dialogue and their contempt for the rules that govern our organization, we have taken several resolutions that we wanted to bring to your attention.
In the first place, we strongly condemn slanderous statements that have been publicly disseminated and relayed, particularly on social networks, and which undermine respect for people and human dignity, sometimes using the most dubious parallels. It is unworthy, it is inexcusable, and it must be banished from our community, else we lose all values and common sense.
The recent consultation with all our members has confirmed the exasperation and misunderstanding many of you feel, as to these acts of denigration that undermine the image of our Association and our projects.
The moral violence and excesses of a few, even though they have always been considered with respect, can not undermine the collective work whose smooth functioning rests, once more, on the respect of one another and the rules which guide our business.
In what capacity would these few have the power to invent a crisis of confidence, or to question these rules? None. Do they have a superior authority over our collective, which we strive to follow as well as possible? No !
Our primary mission is to ensure the integrity of our association and our projects and the protection of employees (which is a legal obligation of the Board of Directors). We therefore denounce with firmness, actions which are dictated only by wars of ego and personal conflict, but are draped in inadmissible moral arguments.
That is why, in accordance with our statutes, we have taken these necessary decisions, to put everyone face to face with their responsibilities:
- Closure of the discussion mailing list (to which employees were unsubscribed Wednesday July 5 as a precautionary measure). Its reopening will be discussed by the Board 10 days after sending this mail.
- Initiation of a procedure to exclude from the association persons who openly, through their defamatory remarks, harmed the association and/or were a source of harassment.
- Refusal of some applications for membership for the same reasons.
During the 10 days of closure of the list, new applications and new questions will not be processed: they will be processed at the end of this period.
During this time, volunteers can of course communicate with employees in the normal course of their work, but no attempt to intimidate employees or board members will be tolerated.
That is why we will very quickly take the necessary legal measures against those who engage in unlawful acts against employees or board members, so that they cease their actions, which are criminalizable. We will undertake all necessary actions to stop and condemn these practices, and will keep you regularly informed of the situation.
In order to give everyone the opportunity to speak in an open, constructive and collaborative environment, we will organize a large meeting in Paris at the beginning of the school year, [an idea] to which we will come back.
In the meantime, we are developing a proposal to create an appropriate forum to discuss discontent. Suggestions are welcome (email@example.com) and will be shared and studied with the utmost attention.
Despite the attacks suffered by the board of directors itself, we will also work to implement new initiatives in service to the interactions of Wikimédia France with you, that is to say with the volunteers who constitute the vast majority of our community.
Last but not least, you will find attached to this letter explanations of subjects that have been discussed in recent weeks in a polemic and deceptive way, in order to reestablish truths useful for the understanding of all.
Samuel Legoff, President
Marie-Alice Mathis, Vice-President
Édouard Hue, Secretary
Florian Pépellin, Director
Émeric Vallespi, Director
Louise Merzeau and Florence Raymond, recently appointed directors, are not at all affected by this crisis and have not participated in drafting this document.
1. Functioning of the Association
2. Current situation of staff
3. Support for volunteer efforts
4. Our position in relation to the Foundation
5. Possible creation of an endowment fund
1. Functioning of the Association
Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects are a common good: the encyclopedia is the result of the freely agreed pooling of contributions. The community of contributors has established governance, with actors and standards that apply within it.
Wikimédia France is not a Wikimedia project but a support structure for projects and the community of contributors, officially recognized by the Wikimedia Foundation as a chapter in France. It is incorporated as an association under a French law from 1901, and thereby registered in a civilian and criminal framework. Wikimédia France in turn recognizes geographical groups of contributors (members or non-members of the Association), with a referent member of the Association.
The Association has a salaried staff since 2010, by decision of the members in general assembly and via the board of directors. Some staff come from the community and have already contributed voluntarily [to the Projects], and have often been recruited for their technical or computer skills and/or their expertise as contributors.
Others were recruited for positions requiring other professional skills such as accounting or human resources management.
Moreover, today, the number of employees necessitates the position of a Director, occupied by Nathalie Martin since 2013, when employee management posed many (but classic) human and legal problems that have since been overcome thanks to that decision.
In practice, the Association is the employer of the staff, legally represented by its board of directors in the person of the [board] President. The Board delegates the position of employer to the Executive Director, who unlike its members (volunteers!) has the relevant management expertise. The Board nevertheless retains full responsibility for the employer, including the obligation to act to protect employees when they report problems.
The political and strategic direction is defined by the board, while the staff implements them in the daily management of the Association. Indeed, Nathalie directs the employees in their missions but does not carry out these missions directly. She is in charge of human resources, including recruitment and, where appropriate, redundancies. In view of this delegation of the employer role, it is contrary to social law for the board or for any other member of the association to direct employees without going through the management team.
This long explanation is made necessary today by the recurring practices of members who interfere in managing staff, often by not believing this field requires real expertise and skills, and deciding that they could do better. This is linked to a desire to manage the Association the way one would a Wikimedia project, horizontally and without direction. This was noted, for example, in the declaration of independence of the local group from Lyon. However, this is legally impossible, on the one hand, by the Association Statute of 1901, and on the other hand because of the presence of staff with status as employees.
Other requests, which run contrary to social rights and the functioning of the Association, emerge regularly: to assist the staff in recruiting interviews, to be able to criticize without knowing the quality of work performed, to choose to approve or not … And even to discuss that approval in the GA [General Assembly]! Wikimédia France is not a popular tribunal, and a board that would let [its members] do this would be committing a very serious offense. Employees could legitimately turn on the Association and have the board of directors sentenced by a labor council or even a criminal court.
This desire to manage the Association as a project leads each time to the same disastrous scenario: after a few months or years, the same unfounded criticisms return (incompetence, opacity, authoritarianism, exclusion of volunteers …) and attacks rain on the lists, on social networks …
We are at a turning point, and must be mature enough to realize this issue is clearly organizational (it happens again and again) and not linked to people. If Wikimédia France has employees, it must provide them with a normal and safe working environment, and the same rights and duties as employees of other private or public organizations. Whether or not they are members of the contributing community.
Finally, this issue concerns the Wikimedia movement in its entirety: many other chapters and the foundation itself encounter problems of employee management, interference by volunteers, and suffering at work.
The average term of office of an Executive Director is extremely short; Nathalie is one of those who has stayed longest, and we owe that to her skill, her devotion to the movement, and her courage in the face of constant attacks.
We are therefore extremely supportive and open to a transparent and sincere discussion on these subjects with the foundation and the other chapters.
2. Current situation of staff
Suffering at work
We must mention the suffering at work of the present staff of the Association, which is a consequence of the point developed above:
- Intense stress linked to mails arriving on the list discussions;
- Stress related to affirmations in all directions on social networks, especially when the Board could not communicate in response (for legal reasons or because it was not up to date);
- Some employees are out of touch with their employer and their colleagues because of their personal relations with contributors;
- Fear of losing their jobs: either because of the financial consequences of the actions of certain volunteers or persons outside the Association (threatening to withdraw our grant/chapter agreement, drastic reduction in FDC funding, high legal fees, translation costs , etc.); or because employees who are editors are supported by the community, and others are constantly questioned or even hear that “heads will fall”.
The Board, outside its legal obligation to protect employees — including management — refuses to allow such a situation to continue. In addition, for the managers (Nathalie but also Cyrille, secretary-general and deputy executive director [and Nathalie’s husband], who managed the employees while Nathalie was on sick leave, as a result of the pressure exerted on her), the time spent managing this crisis greatly reduces time spent on the mission for which they were engaged.
We must also return to the dismissal of X., a very active and renowned contributor to the community.
Employee subordination and dismissal of X.
[Removed: 9 paragraphs of the Association’s allegations against their former community liaison, an employee they recently dismissed. Unworthy of comment.]
We would also like to point out that even after termination of employment, X. is under a duty of loyalty to their employer, and the Association as employer is also bound by this duty of loyalty to X.
3. Support for volunteer efforts
We reaffirm here that it is not compulsory to be a member to be supported by the Association on Wikimedia projects. The questionnaire sent to all the members showed a great deal of satisfaction with the actions carried out.
However, if actions have been hindered or not supported by the Association, we would like to know. To our knowledge there are none, apart from one refusal: that of dedicating paid time to look for a room outside the premises and to finance it, so that Z. [a disabled member who left the Association after an unpleasant experience; see below] would not be forced to meet some agents of the Association when she led Wikidata workshops.
This additional cost without justification, and this attempt to discriminate, can not be endorsed by the Association.
Moreover, the movement allows [groups] to organize freely and it is a very good thing. We have in no way hindered the Lyons group’s desire to be independent from the Association.
4. Our position in relation to the [Wikimedia] Foundation
Conflict with Christophe Henner
From the perspective of the Board and management, motivations other than the stated arguments explain the decline in FDC funding this year. Indeed, we believe that the main reason is the actions of Christophe Henner, former president of Wikimedia France and current chairman of the Foundation board, towards our chapter, its members, and its employees.
First, in 2016, we tried to reason with him, in vain.
We were then forced to tell the Foundation about Christophe Henner’s serious actions against Nathalie Martin [the Wikimedia France Director] when he was president of Wikimédia France and therefore the employer of Nathalie, then later when he became chairman of the board of the Foundation.
A first email on this subject was sent by Émeric (then president of the board) to Christophe and Katherine Maher (Executive Director of the Foundation), on March 7, to ask him for explanations on his actions.
Christophe, on March 10, sent us a laconic reply, without any substance. We wrote again to Christophe and Katherine on March 19. This new letter went unanswered.
Émeric pointed out the same problems to Nataliia and Stephen (of the Foundation’s Governance Committee) on May 12, without any response from them either.
An appeal to the Board on the FDC’s recommendation was filed on June 7. The Board’s reply was negative on June 28: it did not answer the points and problems raised. Finally, a complaint to the Ombudsperson (mediator) concerning the FDC process was sent on June 6. He asked questions on June 19, to which we replied on June 24, without any further follow-up.
It seems to me therefore that no contradictory investigation has been carried out and that obviously everything is done to stifle the case.
For a movement like ours, which emphasizes values of inclusiveness and transparency, we are very surprised that nothing is put in place to take into account the suffering of employees and ensure the protection of women in their workplace. Nathalie will take such action as she deems necessary.
Problems encountered at weekend strategy and their consequences
We have already communicated about incidents that took place at the strategy weekend in January, concerning Z. [a contributor and member of Wikimedia France]. We will, however, summarize the facts in question, in a right of reply to the timeline published by Mathis Benguigui who mentions these events.
However, we would like to recall some points.
First, the incidents in question, about which we acknowledge the suffering they caused for Z, were not reported to either Émeric or Nathalie, even though criticisms related to the managers of this incident were formulated almost exclusively against them. The remainder of the Board and the staff can testify in a personal capacity (as Jonathan Balima, accountant of the Association, did on the discussions list) that if Nathalie and/or Émeric had made aware of Z’s state of distress in time, they would have done everything possible to find solutions so that she could participate serenely in the weekend activities.
Secondly, Pierre-Selim Huard and Caroline Becker, who have since resigned and who strongly criticized the actions of the Board and the managers during this weekend, were present. They should have helped Z. as soon as they became aware of the situation, if only by warning the managers.
Third, this incident has been instrumentalized by some people at the foundation. Indeed, we learned by chance during a working meeting with Delphine Ménard (our Program Officer for the annual funding request to the FDC) that an investigation into the harassment of Z. by Nathalie had been opened by the Foundation, and that we might incur the outright withdrawal of our chapter agreement if these facts were proven. Not only did our Board not know about this investigation, but on the advice of Christophe Henner (which is not his role), only Caroline Becker was questioned. When we told the foundation that we were surprised that the testimony of various other parties was not gathered, and asked what the official procedure of the Foundation was for this investigation, we learned that it was finally abandoned. These dysfunctional procedures show, for us, the will to fuel a campaign aimed at weakening our Association, but with no real basis.
In addition, we would like to say that Caroline Becker is not a “whistleblower”. She did not disclose any peril to the Association and did not try to solve the problem she was aware of during the weekend strategy. On the contrary, she made defamatory statements against Nathalie, instead of respecting a normal, transparent and framed process. Nor did she warn the rest of the Board of the risks resulting from this investigation.
Pierre-Selim confirmed in writing that he was unaware of his partner’s testimony or of the investigation, and acknowledged that Caroline could not stay on the Board, given her actions.
He finally resigned, his position as Caroline’s partner being too difficult to sustain, which we respect.
What we do not accept are his public statements and those of other people who distort reality to make Caroline a victim of the Board.
Moreover, Pierre-Selim used, after his resignation, his “executive” access to the data of the Association, when he was no longer entitled to it. He used that data to report to members that several people had been unsubscribed from the discussion list, which inevitably provoked a new wave of accusations of censorship and authoritarianism.
However, if the Board has done so, it is their responsibility. Noting the excesses on the list despite the a priori moderation, we decided in the first place to withdraw the non-up-to-date members of their dues, as we would have been entitled to do for a long time. No doubt we should have communicated simply and directly to this fact, but it is not easy when we are caught off guard by attempts to harm us, by members with whom we were still working in good faith very recently on the Board!
Instrumentalisation by other actors
Finally, we express our indignation at the fact that some very virulent attacks on the Board and its leadership come from people who, far from pursuing the ideals they promote, try to mask their real motivations and conflicts. (Paid editing, paid editing disguised as a volunteer, attempts to retrieve training requests to the Association via OTRS to charge for their personal activity, etc.). It is clear that these people seek to disavow the Board and management team in the hope of continuing or resuming these dubious practices.
5. Possible creation of an endowment fund
Ongoing reflection on the consequent share of lobbying in the Association’s activities (and for fields broader than only the object of Wikimédia France) led to a study of the pertinence of an endowment fund which would support all stakeholders involved in open knowledge.
Indeed, although lobbying has a broad consensus [as an activity] among our members and in the community, it involves a lot of resources that benefit more than just the community of contributors.
As a result, volunteers and employees have made various consultations with experts and potential funders about a possible endowment fund, which are also not confidential.
However, if the choice to create an endowment fund with partners was made, the Board should decide on the creation of such a structure, inform the AG, and depending on the structure, vote at the AG meeting. In the context of diversifying funding sources, and while the Association is in the process of being recognized as a public utility (RUP), this fund could be an idea to be explored to finance Wikimedia France, since it could call upon the foundations of businesses.
However, this non-confidential study conducted by staff was presented in a very ambiguous way by Florence Devouard on the mailing list. This aroused suspicions among the other members. A second email from Florence, rejected by the moderators but published on a parallel discussion list, even mentions “a suspicion of use of the Association’s assets, the (good) reputation of the Association, for indirect personal purposes “.
We firmly condemn what again is an attempt to put the Board in trouble via unfounded allegations. We also reiterate that if adherents possess evidence of embezzlement, they are in a position to transmit it to the relevant authorities; the rest is nothing but hoax and intimidation.