Monday, February 25, 2013

Tire-d of Clichés? A French-American Spat that Will not Be.

Franco-American relationships took a blow this week, thanks to American CEO of tire maker Maurice Taylor. Mr Taylor did not only dismiss the French government invitation to invest in a struggling tire factory in northern France, he did so by writing a letter that has shocked la France entière, in which he claimed that the country's “so-called” workers put in “three hours a day” with the rest spent eating and talking. (see NYTimes article for details)

The French government, naturally upset, responded by saying that the letter was "extremist and insulting" and displayed "a perfect ignorance of what our country is about", ending with a warning note of potential retaliation "Be assured that you can count on me to inspect your tire imports with a redoubled zeal"

Mr Taylor is also a right-wing Republican who made a try in the presidential primaries in 1996, à la Ross-Perot, who "promised to balance the federal budget in 18 months, mainly by cutting about one-third of all the bureaucrats." and co-authored a book called " Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government." Now of course, one can only imagine that his visit to a French factory and talks to French unions must have been like two worlds colliding.

Mr Taylor also added what looks more like old clichés than anything else:
"France does have beautiful women and great wine. PS: My grandmother named my father after French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, and I inherited the name."
In a final flourish, he said: “I have visited Normandy with my wife. I know what we did for France.” (Telegraph)

This comes in a context when the French are indeed rather sensitive to "le French bashing", as the Telegraph rightfully observed:
They think nobody loves them. They are inclined to see signs of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy involving credit rating agencies (why did they downgrade France but not, until Friday night, the UK?), the British press (led by The Economist), prime minister David Cameron with his proffered red carpet for exiled entrepreneurs, and now multinationals such as Titan and ArcelorMittal.
Clearly, this is clearly noticeable in the way the media reacted to the story:
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. (Time)
Granted there may be some need for self-criticism on the part of the French, especially regarding the communist-backed CGT union who is radical and uncompromising. Besides, the It remains that the charges that the French workers are lazy do not stand when faced with statistics. Even the Financial Times agrees.
Here's what Time Magazine concludes:
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.
So could this French bashing lead to American bashing in return? I doubt it. This is most likely of little consequence in the long term as Mr Taylor has been seen as a nutjob rather than a representative of anything more than himself.
This little incident got the U.S. State Department's attention though:
Earlier, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland played down the cross-Atlantic spat as a "private matter" and not a concern between the United States and its "oldest ally" France.
"We have deep and broad relations, including many successful American businesses operating in France, many successful French businesses operating in the United States," she added. (Telegraph)
One of the most damaging consequences is probably that this diverts the attention from some of the true problems France faces, by victimizing a whole nation. Making outrageous statements does not help, especially when you point out the wrong problems.
As much as I disagree with the solutions The Economist usually offers, I agree with their conclusion on this matter:
At a time when the country has lost competitiveness to Germany, the economy is sliding into recession, taxes are at a record high, and the government has conceded that it will miss its deficit-reduction target for 2013, genuine concerns about the prospects of turning things around are wide-spread. Clara Gaymard, the French head of GE, an American conglomerate which successfully manufactures high-tech industrial stuff in France, put it well in her response to Mr Taylor’s letter. Yes, she said, “France’s image abroad is poor”. But “we are both a wonderful country and a very irritating one. (The Economist)
In the end, this spat between an American Republican businessman and the French government may not even be worth the time I spent writing this post.

UPDATE: The latest "twist" to this ridiculous story is a letter sent by Coca Cola to the French government in which the soft drink company says it “was happy to invest in France, for over 90 years" (....) and "hopes to more actively promote the attractiveness of the French territory to foreign companies,”.
(Source: Le Monde)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an arse! I continually marvel at the way in which ignorance can be so loudly and confidently proclaimed in our society.