The battle between an American capitalist and a French socialist official has prompted chuckles and heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic. The exchange highlights some humorous stereotypes and reveals real differences between the economic cultures of France and the United States.
A leaked letter from Maurice Taylor, CEO of the Illinois-based Titan tire company, ignited the controversy. In it, Taylor, regarded by the French as a hardcore capitalist, addressed Arnaud Montebourg, France's flamboyant, leftist industrial renewal minister.
Taylor wrote that he was no longer thinking about buying an ailing Goodyear tire plant in northern France, saying it would be stupid to buy a facility where workers were paid for seven hours but toiled for only three, spending the rest of the time on lunch and coffee breaks. He also told the minister what he thought about French workers when he visited the plant.
"I noticed that when you get to a machine and you're working, you work real good, you work as fine as any place, and you make a great product," Taylor said in an interview on the BBC. "But half the time, you guys are walking around, having discussions. It reminds me of a beauty parlor. You got to work a full six hours, you're being paid for seven. And the union president stands up to me and says, 'That is the French way, Mr. Taylor.' "
Taylor called French unions crazy and said he'd open a factory in China, pay workers a fraction of French salaries and export those tires back to France.
The letter provoked a firestorm in France when it was published in the French daily Les Echos. In his written response, Montebourg called Taylor's proposal extremist and insulting.
If Titan's tires are imported to France, Montebourg threatened, he would make sure they're inspected with particular zeal. The epistolary war was entertaining, but it also struck a nerve in France.
'We Want To Work'
On Tuesday, workers at the ailing Goodyear tire plant in Amiens came out in protest, angry about how they'd been portrayed in the media.
David Mera said he and other workers are not lazy. He remembered Taylor's visit vividly and described him as walking with a cowboy swagger. Taylor visited a wing of the plant that was at half capacity, Mera said.
"We want to work more. Many of us have worked hard here 10, 20 and 30 years. We have families to support," Mera said. "But Goodyear took orders away from us and is investing in factories in China."
Goodyear reduced capacity at the Amiens plant five years ago when workers refused to accept layoffs. But workers questioned why jobs should be cut while the company remained highly profitable.
Among this crowd of workers, the boss is evil, always looking to exploit them. Many workers wore T-shirts reading "Hoodlum Bosses." Taylor fits that bill perfectly, said Michael Wamen, head of the plant's General Confederation of Labor union.
"He has no scruples," Wamen said. "He made a fortune, has private jets and yachts and yet he wants to produce his tires in China at one euro an hour. ... Maybe soon he'll be able to get his tires made for 30 cents an hour by children in Bangladesh."
As they headed for lunch in front of Amiens town hall, workers said they don't earn big salaries: between $18,000 and $30,000. Most blamed globalization for their plight.
Challenges For The French Model
The letter exchange leaves one to wonder whether the cherished French employment model can survive in a globalized world.
The episode has been an embarrassment for French President Francois Hollande, who is struggling with a high unemployment rate and an image that France is an unfriendly place for business. It's not the first time Montebourg, the young, firebrand minister of industrial renewal, has caused him headaches with international investors.
Jean-Gilles Malliarakis, an economist and publisher, says Montebourg is "absolutely a demagogue." He says it's all about politics and claims Montebourg leaked Taylor's letter to become a hero of the far left.
As the Goodyear workers stacked up and set fire to an enormous pile of tires, one couldn't help but notice the Dunlop plant next door, also owned by Goodyear, humming in process without any problems. Dunlop workers have five weeks of vacation and good benefits.
Apparently, the difference is that instead of confrontation, unions and higher-ups there worked out an agreement. The unions agreed to work longer, more difficult hours. In return, Goodyear agreed to invest $50 million in the plant to keep it running.