French fume over mocking snub by US businessman

France in a tizz overAn American businessman's declaration that French workers are lazy and over-paid has brought anger and counter-insults in return

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 3:14am

The grim routine of economic life in Europe and efforts to get to grips with intractable problems of high unemployment, heavy deficits and debts were enlivened last week by an extraordinary spat between an American industrialist nicknamed "The Grizz", outraged French workers and a Socialist minister.

The language used on both sides was colourful and entertaining, but some important questions are being missed in the mudslinging.

The Grizz, also known as Maurice Taylor, the chief executive of Titan International, a US tyre manufacturer, said French workers were overpaid, lazy, unproductive and over-protected by a socialist system offering a working week of only 35 hours, five weeks' paid holidays and retirement at 60. In short, he would be "stupid", he said, to buy a tyre plant in Normandy.

His language seemed intended to upset and provoke anger, especially since his comments came in a letter to Arnaud Montebourg, the French industry minister, which was leaked to the press.

Taylor said "the French workforce gets paid high wages, but only works three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that's the French way."

Workers, media and minister reacted. "Incendiary", "insulting" and "scathing" were the immediate comments, along with counter-claims that the American corporate culture was "predatory".

The head of France's biggest trade union said Taylor belonged in the "psychiatric ward".

Montebourg waded in, saying Taylor's remarks were "as extremist as they are insulting", and showed "a perfect ignorance of what our country is".

He added: "May I remind you that the company you run is one-20th the size of Michelin, our world-class French technological leader, and one-35th as profitable."

May I remind you that the company you run is one-20th the size of Michelin, our world-class French technological leader, and one-35th as profitable

By this time, the protagonists had entered Comic Cuts land. The Titan website calls Taylor "The Grizz", saying he earned it for "his tough negotiating style". He stood for the Republican nomination for US president in 1996 but won about 1 per cent of the vote in the primaries. The title of his book, Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government, shows Taylor's political platform.

Taylor was tapping into a rich seam of claims that the French are lazy. Books, such as Absolument De-bor-dee, or "Completely Snowed Under", used sarcastically, and Bonjour Paresse, or "Hello, Laziness", have moaned about the lack of productive work, especially in the state-run sector.

French workers have a history of finding ingenious ways of wasting time and money. Two years ago, workers at one big French company stuck thousands of Post-it notes to windows of their headquarters to illustrate Tintin, the comic boy detective, while at a big bank the workers displayed their own heroes, Asterisk and Obelix, in Post-it notes which covered six floors.

What is puzzling is that the spat was triggered by a request from Montebourg that Titan should consider buying an ailing Goodyear plant in France, with the threatened loss of 1,173 jobs. Of course, it did not help that Taylor responded: "How stupid do you think we are?"

He added salt to the wound by continuing: "Titan is going to buy a Chinese tyre factory or an Indian one, pay less than one euro per hour wage, and ship all the tyres that France needs. You can keep the so-called workers."

This was another red rag for Montebourg, who declared that France would inspect any Titan tyre imports "with a redoubled zeal".

Taylor then had the temerity to send a second letter to Montebourg saying that "the extremist, Mr Minister, is your government and the lack of knowledge about how to build a business. Your government let the wackos of the Communist union destroy the highest paying jobs".

Taylor said he was prepared to concede that "France does have beautiful women and great wine".

In fact, French workers, according to international surveys, score highly in western terms in productivity. Studies in 2011 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that French workers produced US$57.70 an hour, just ahead of the Germans at US$55.80, and far ahead of the British, with US$47.20, although behind US workers, who came top with US$60.20 an hour.

One problem, according to management experts, is the quality of French management and the remoteness of the top bosses from the factory floor or the line workers. Too many of the bosses come from the handful of top universities, the best and the brightest of France, but remote from the people doing the work.

France is not, yet, facing the same plight as Spain or Italy, but last week's economic figures make grim reading, with the economy slowing to a stop and the deficit heading for 3.7 per cent of gross domestic product against the European Union maximum of 3 per cent.

It is high time for Paris to get real. The short working week, the long holidays, high taxes, entrenched unions and inflexible labour laws that inhibit hiring and firing do not help. Then throw in a minister too quick to bite the hand that is feeding France - Montebourg did it before when steelmaker Arcelor-Mittal wanted to close some of its operations and he threatened nationalisation - and the country has got more problems than it can cope with.

In a globalising world where competitors in Asia work 25 to 40 per cent more hours, with costs under tighter control and flexible production and delivery times, even a Socialist minister should be able to do the sums.