Amer­i­can’s dig at French work­ers spawns tran­sat­lantic spit­ball

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ED­WARD CODY codyej@wash­post.com

PARIS, — It is a bat­tle of archetypes: Morry “the Grizz” Tay­lor, the mil­lion­aire Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ist who owns tire man­u­fac­turer Ti­tan In­ter­na­tional, has taken on Ar­naud Mon­te­bourg, a hand­some French So­cial­ist and po­lit­i­cal comer whose evoca­tive government ti­tle is min­is­ter of pro­duc­tive re­cov­ery.

In an un­usual pub­lic ex­change, the two have been trad­ing in­sults about the work habits of the French, who, ac­cord­ing to folk­lore, at­tach more im­por­tance to cof­fee breaks and long, winy lunches than to ef­fi­cient pro­duc­tion. It is an old and en­ter­tain­ing sub­ject but one that has as­sumed new ur­gency in the fifth year of an eco­nomic cri­sis af­fect­ing France and its Euro­pean neigh­bors.

In a let­ter to Mon­te­bourg, Tay­lor started the bat­tle by say­ing bluntly that French work­ers at a tire plant he had vis­ited are over­paid, lazy and cod­dled by a So­cial­ist government en­forc­ing such legally man­dated rights as a 35-hour work­week, five weeks of va­ca­tion and early re­tire­ment. But the big­gest prob­lem, Tay­lor said, is what the work­ers do — or don’t do — while on the job.

“The French em­ploy­ees get high salaries but only work three hours,” he wrote in the let­ter, which was made avail­able to the French me­dia this past week. “They have an hour for their breaks and their lunches, chat for three hours and work for three hours. I said this in front of French union rep­re­sen­ta­tives. They said that’s the way it is in France.”

Mon­te­bourg shot back that Tay­lor’s ac­cu­sa­tions were “as ex­trem­ist as they are in­sult­ing” and re­vealed “a per­fect ig­no­rance of what our coun­try is.”

The tran­sat­lantic spit­ball fight at­tracted at­ten­tion here for sev­eral rea­sons. For one thing, work­ers at the Goodyear plant Tay­lor vis­ited were shown on the nightly news demon­strat­ing af­ter hear­ing that their jobs were be­ing phased out. For an­other, the two pro­tag­o­nists were ap­peal­ing to stereo­types on both sides of the ocean: When French So­cial­ists want to feel good about them­selves, they tally the ways they dif­fer from peo­ple like Tay­lor; judg­ing by Tay­lor’s charges, he does the same in re­verse.

Tay­lor, a 68-year-old arch con­ser­va­tive, ran for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 1996 on a plat­form summed up in the ti­tle of his book “Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government.” (Mon­te­bourg is a lawyer by pro­fes­sion.) Although he got only about 1 per­cent of the vote in GOP pri­maries, Tay­lor has gone on his merry way buy­ing up dy­ing cor­po­ra­tions for profit.

Mon­te­bourg, 50, who gar­nered 17 per­cent of the vote in the So­cial­ist Party’s pres­i­den­tial pri­maries last year, has po­si­tioned him­self in Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande’s government as an in­dus­trial na­tion­al­ist. Although of­ten not heeded by the cau­tious Hol­lande, he has ad­vo­cated pro­tec­tion­ist mea­sures to ward off com­pe­ti­tion from cheap-la­bor coun­tries such as China and vowed to pro­tect France’s wheez­ing fac­to­ries from preda­tory for­eign cap­i­tal­ists by na­tion­al­iza­tion if nec­es­sary.

In any case, the work habits of the French have long been a hot topic here, the sub­ject of jokes but also of such se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion that even the So­cial­ist government has tried to re­form the la­bor laws.

The con­ver­sa­tion has in­ten­si­fied in re­cent months, as France’s eco­nomic growth has flat-lined and fac­to­ries con­tinue to close, pro­duc­ing a 10 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate. For many econ­o­mists, a big cul­prit is the high cost of pro­duc­tion — an hour of work is $46 in France, com­pared with about $30 in the United States.

De­spite the dis­cour­ag­ing statis­tics, Tay­lor’s com­pany tried for sev­eral years to buy part of the fail­ing Goodyear tire fac­tory in the north­ern city of Amiens, in­tend­ing to aban­don gen­eral pro­duc­tion to spe­cial­ize in heavy­duty agri­cul­ture tires. But the ne­go­ti­a­tions fiz­zled be­cause, ac­cord­ing to Tay­lor, French unions made un­rea­son­able de­mands that were backed by the government.

When Goodyear an­nounced Jan. 31 that it planned to close the plant, putting 1,250 French em­ploy­ees out of work, Mon­te­bourg wrote to Tay­lor sug­gest­ing that ne­go­ti­a­tions might re­sume on the plan for a par­tial ac­qui­si­tion. But the Amer­i­can would have none of it.

“Do you think we are that stupid?” he wrote back. “Ti­tan is the one with the money and the know-how to pro­duce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government.”

Mon­te­bourg re­torted that 20,000 for­eign com­pa­nies op­er­ate in France, in­clud­ing 4,200 Amer­i­can sub­sidiaries that em­ploy nearly half a mil­lion peo­ple and find they can do busi­ness just fine.

“Far from your state­ments, which are as ridicu­lous as they are nasty, all th­ese busi­nesses know and ap­pre­ci­ate the qual­ity and the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the French work­force,” he said.

Un­will­ing to leave it there, Tay­lor granted an in­ter­view Fri­day to French news ser­vice Agence France-Presse and fired off an­other mis­sive to Mon­te­bourg by e-mail.

“The ex­trem­ist,” he told the min­is­ter, “is your government and its lack of knowl­edge on how to build a busi­ness.” He added: “Since you bring it up, why is un­em­ploy­ment so high in France and es­pe­cially among young peo­ple? It is be­cause of your government’s poli­cies, sir.”

JEFF PACHOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

LE CREUSOT, FRANCE: Ar­naud Mon­te­bourg, right, a So­cial­ist and min­is­ter of pro­duc­tive re­cov­ery in France, speaks with an em­ployee at FrancEole’s wind tur­bine fac­tory. He has de­fended “the qual­ity and the pro­duc­tiv­ity” of the coun­try’s work­force.

TI­TAN IN­TER­NA­TIONAL PHOTO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

QUINCY, ILL.: Morry “the Grizz” Tay­lor, left, owner and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ti­tan In­ter­na­tional, helps at the com­pany’s bull wheel plant. He de­scribed the work­ers at a Goodyear fac­tory in France as over­paid, lazy and cod­dled by a So­cial­ist government.

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