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France’s Soccer Federation Roiled by Workplace Culture Complaints

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From the outside, France’s soccer federation has for two years represented its sport’s gold standard: champions at the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018 and host of the most successful women’s championship in history a year later.

But inside the federation, current and former officials said, that golden aura has masked at least two years of roiling discontent, including accusations of improper behavior by executives toward female staff members, charges of bullying by the organization’s director general and complaints about a toxic culture in which some men routinely direct sexist language and suggestive remarks toward female staff members.

Things have gotten so bad inside the federation’s Paris headquarters, in fact, that the longtime president, Noël Le Graët, has brought in an outside expert trained in repairing broken businesses to guide his staff out of the tumult.

“For several months now I’ve been made aware of instances of dysfunction and tense work relationships within the leadership team,” Le Graët wrote last month in an email to senior staff members that was reviewed by The New York Times. “I do not want this situation to drag on. It is taking a toll on our organization and on proper working conditions among us all.”

The discord is a serious threat to the organization’s mission, several federation officials said, not only because of the workplace issues, but also because the loss of top leaders could, over time, affect the performance of France’s world-beating teams. France’s women’s team is dealing with its own internal revolt, with several top players feuding with the team’s coach and one announcing she will not play for the squad until the coach is gone.

In interviews far from the field, more than a half-dozen current and former employees of the soccer federation described to The Times a work environment in which bad language, mental abuse and stress were common, and where alcohol had fueled improper behavior at staff events, including at least one incident in which male staff members entered a female colleague’s room without her permission.

The crisis inside the federation belies the success of France’s teams, from the men’s World Cup winners of 2018 to the country’s widely respected youth development programs to a women’s national team that ranks third in the world behind only the United States and Germany.

One director described the situation as a “sad paradox” in which so many positives disguised “two years of sickness.”

“It is a pathetic comedy,” he said.

The soccer body, the Fédération Française de Football (F.F.F.), employs about 300 staff members operating across two main sites: the organization’s headquarters in Paris and a national training center in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, about 35 miles southwest of the city. With an annual budget of around $300 million, it oversees all amateur and professional soccer in France, a constituency of more than 2.1 million licensed amateur players and about 1,500 professionals. The federation also runs one of the world’s best talent production systems across 25 sites nationwide, including eight specifically for women.

For Le Graët, insiders said, much of the focus has been on repairing the deteriorating relationships among members of his management team. In September, more than a year after fielding complaints about the leadership style of the organization’s director general, Florence Hardouin, he sent an email to the federation’s directors telling them he had called in a workplace expert, Eric Moliere, whose company, Plein Sens, specializes in repairing damaged organizations.

Le Graët, who also sits on the governing council of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has promised to act on the findings of the report being compiled by Moliere. But for more than a year since receiving a letter signed by more than a dozen senior executives who stated that they had lost confidence in management, Le Graët has taken few substantive actions to address the problems, the current and former officials said.

At a meeting in 2019, according to staff members who were present, Le Graët simply implored staff members to work better together. Hardouin, according to people involved, heard the complaints and made her own criticisms, but also vowed to make an effort to improve the situation.

She had a tough job on her hands.

“The working environment has deteriorated so much because of a management method which harms the functioning of the federation and the good accomplishment of its basic missions,” read a portion of the letter sent to Le Graët last year.

This summer, the environment deteriorated further, employees said, with more missives being addressed to Le Graët. In one that was reviewed by The Times, an executive said that his mental health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer carry out his job. Other officials have made similar claims of psychological harassment from colleagues.

Despite the problems, Le Graët insisted that things were not as bad as some officials said.

“There is no ‘civil war’ in F.F.F.,” he said in emailed responses to questions relayed through the federation’s spokesman. “This is wrong, absurd and fake news.” Hardouin, like other staff members, had his full support, he added.

For Hardouin, one of a small group of women in senior roles in global soccer, the skirmishes have been personal. In emailed responses to questions, she said she was aware of the complaints that have found their way with increasing regularity to the office of Le Graët, who promoted her from her position as the head of the marketing division to lead the federation in 2012.

But Hardouin said she did not feel personally targeted by the accusations, and suggested it was healthy for the organization to work with the outside expert to address any problems.

“All this allows us to improve, move forward and be better,” she said.

Moliere, the workplace consultant, has spent hours talking to the senior management team and asking probing questions, according to some of those who have been interviewed.

According to officials at the federation, part of the problem — and perhaps some of the causes of the infighting — lies in a bloated management structure in which 17 directors are constantly vying for prominent roles. (Those internal politics also may be heating up with a specific date in mind: Le Graët, 78, is up for re-election in March.) But the issues, several of those interviewed said, also were a reflection of a culture that in some instances has taken a blind eye to behavior that some employees, especially younger staff members, have said makes them uncomfortable.

After the World Cup in 2018, for example, the federation warned its finance director, Marc Varin, about his conduct after a female employee filed a complaint accusing him of behaving improperly toward her at a party in Moscow.

A police investigation and then an internal investigation by the F.F.F. cleared Varin of sexual harassment, but he was later warned about the language he used toward both male and female colleagues — as well as about his alcohol consumption — at a Christmas party that year, the federation said.

Another episode that frustrated some female staff members occurred a few years earlier, when, after an evening of drinking at a management retreat at Clairefontaine, at least two senior executives brandishing a Champagne bottle entered a female colleague’s room late at night without an invitation. The federation said it had not received a complaint about the incident, which was described by three people with direct knowledge of the evening.

Female staff members, though, told The Times about the casual use of sexually suggestive language by men who work for the federation, as well as being subjected to sexist comments about their appearance.

The federation denied there were any such problems, and noted that 45 percent of its employees were women.

Still, growing concerns about the conduct of federation personnel led to changes after the incident at the World Cup in Russia. Staff members are now barred from consuming alcohol at parties hosted on federation properties, and a program of mandatory anti-harassment training was introduced for federation employees at the start of 2020. That process has stalled since the coronavirus outbreak, however; about half of the senior managers have yet to receive the training.

At the same time, communication at the federation’s senior levels has disintegrated. The F.F.F., like other sports organizations, faces damaging financial consequences as a result of the pandemic, but its directors have not held a board meeting in four months. Factions have formed that either support or oppose Hardouin, the director general, and some officials have hired lawyers to represent their interests ahead of possible exit negotiations.

Le Graët, as he did a year ago, has tried to assure employees that the problems can be overcome. But the tense atmosphere has spread to junior staff members, with one official describing a “zombielike” atmosphere inside the organization.

For now, all of the employees are awaiting the result of Moliere’s report, which they hope will lead to fundamental changes. Failure to reform, according to some, will inevitably hit the federation where it matters most: on the field.

“We are the result of several years’ work, and the mess today you’ll see on the pitch in four or five years’ time,” said the official, a senior federation executive who asked not to be identified given the politics at play in the management fight.

“I think nobody should be saved, not the factions, not Florence, and not the president,” the official added. “I truly think no one cares about football, they just care about themselves. We need a fresh start.”

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