What’s French for “cat fight”? Ask American businessman and would-be industrial investor Maurice Taylor, who has provoked la France entière by claiming the “French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours.” In doing so, Taylor mockingly dismissed French government invitations to invest in a struggling tire factory in northern France.
“How stupid do you think we are?” Taylor asked in a letter sent to French Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg, who had asked the CEO of the Titan International tire company to invest in a money-losing Goodyear plant in Amiens. The notoriously hard-edged Taylor maintained the factory suffers from the same lame work ethic, coddled labor force, union domination and protection of feckless politicians he seems to see plaguing the wider French economy.
“You can keep the so-called workers. Titan has no interest in the Amiens North factory,” Taylor said in a double-barrel missive revealed by the French media Feb. 20. “Titan is going to buy a Chinese tire company or an Indian one, pay less than one euro per hour and ship all the tires France needs.”
(MORE: Goodyear’s French Nightmare)
That’s exactly the kind of business ethos assured to enervate Montebourg—a crusading leftist cabinet member who has repeatedly locked horns with bosses over job cuts. Last year Montebourg threatened to nationalize French units of Arcelor Mittal over what he called the steel giant’s “lying” by ignoring promises not to close plants. In replying to Taylor’s broadside, Montebourg scorned the CEO’s “extremist insults” of France as a reflection his “perfect ignorance of what our country is.”
Perhaps, but Taylor’s tarring of the Amiens operation succeeded to obtain what may have been a broader objective: using it as a broad brush to tarnish a purportedly pampered, work-averse French society—one the 1996 GOP primary candidate doesn’t seem too fond of. Indeed, in deriding the Goodyear workforce that “gets paid high wages but…get(s) one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three,” Taylor seemed to be shaking a fist at the entire French socioeconomic model and protective welfare state that American ultra-conservatives hate as iconic of enormous government and sky-high taxes. Given that vibe, it was little wonder that French politicians from both left and right joined pundits denouncing Taylor’s attack. Even Laurence Parisot—head of France’s main pro-business advocacy organization—objected to the American’s comments as “a shocking generalization” and “unacceptable.”
Those weren’t the only emotions surging. The French daily le Parisien actually sounded hurt Feb. 21 when it ran a front-page headline declaring, “No, the French Aren’t Lazy!” Reports elsewhere revealed that Goodyear employees working reduced hours in Amiens do so at management’s requests in response to slumping activity. Harder-hitting French commentators took aim at the avowedly right-wing Taylor, and poking fun at his ferocity-inspired nickname, “the Grizz”—a bearish association he shares with Sarah Palin. True to that company, left-leaning daily Libération described Taylor as “an extremist used to provocations.” In other words, exactly the kind of American businessperson France and most Europe wants nothing to do with.
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So who wins the battle of the trans-Atlantic stereotype bashing? Perhaps Taylor, judging from the sense of hurt in France. But numbers suggest the French don’t come off too badly when Taylor’s Gallic stereotypes are viewed from other angles.
Statistics compiled by international organizations routinely find French workers among the most productive in the world in terms of GDP per hours worked. Numbers from 2011 rank, French employees seventh globally in per hour productivity—three places (but less than 3% behind) the U.S. workforce. French labor productivity per hour actually exceeds that of Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. when calculated in adjusted euro figures. That reputation-defying efficiency has also helped make France the ninth-largest recipient of foreign direct investment in 2011 with $40.9 billion—third among European Union members. Not bad for a place where everybody supposedly takes lunch breaks and talks all day.
Yet rather than advancing what some critics say may be manipulated stats, Montebourg preferred to match Tayor blow for blow. “Can I remind you that Titan, the company you head is 20 times smaller than Michelin, the French technology leader with a global reach, and 35 times more profitable?” Montebourg replied to Taylor’s letter. “That shows the extent to which Titan could have learned and gained enormously from a French base.”
Perhaps someone now may ask the Grizz what the French is for touché.