Compared with some of the more spectacular Franco-American clashes, this spat was relatively small-time. It wasn’t Charles de Gaulle abruptly kicking NATO headquarters out of Paris in the 1960s and withdrawing French troops from the alliance’s military command, much to Washington’s distress. Nor was it Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin regaling the UN Security Council exactly 10 years ago with his high-flown rhetoric against invading Iraq. That fracas—Villepin’s condescending lessons to the U.S. from “an old country, France, from a continent like mine, Europe, that has known wars, occupation and barbarity”—led to vintage Bordeaux down the drain and Freedom Fries in congressional cafeterias.
But what this this one lacks in historic importance it makes up for with perfect typecasting. Seldom have the differences between American and French ethos, style, and character been so neatly drawn—to the point of caricature. But like most caricatures, the one resulting from this epistolary altercation has been both comic and fundamentally revealing. It was the archetypical hardheaded American businessman vs. the archetypical French socialist. With the gloves off.
In one corner we have Maurice “The Grizz” Taylor, 68-year-old chairman and CEO of Titan International, Midwestern maker of heavy-duty wheels and tires mainly for agricultural and construction equipment. Nicknamed for his abrasive negotiating style, Taylor took over a small wheel manufacturer in Quincy, Illinois, 30 years ago. Getting his hands dirty—he was a welder by trade—and making profits and enemies along the way, he bought up failing tire makers and turned Titan into a global producer. In 1996 he ran as an archconservative for the Republican presidential nomination against the likes of Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Bob Dole. His book, Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government, won him few friends inside the Beltway. Nor did many Washingtonians appreciate his campaign pledge to balance the budget by firing a million federal workers, or his quip that most members of Congress were “rejects from the law profession.”
In the other corner is Arnaud Montebourg, a foppish, tousle-haired cabinet member in President François Hollande’s socialist government who glories in the improbable title of minister of industrial renewal. Now 50, Montebourg is a political hack who has zigzagged through the Socialist Party as a left-wing sniper taking potshots at globalization and fellow socialists. As spokesman for the 2008 presidential bid of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s longtime mistress, Montebourg awkwardly stated that her main problem was Hollande himself. Known for his prancing grandstanding, he is a favorite target of French political satirists, who love to mock his pseudo-aristocratic airs. Good limousine liberal that he is, he married the daughter of a French count before divorcing and taking up with a lady TV journalist, as French politicians of all stripes are wont to do.
WHEN HE BECAME the minister in charge of trying to save what’s left of France’s vanishing industrial base, Montebourg—with no private-sector business experience—inherited the thorny Goodyear problem. The company had been trying since 2007 to restructure production and working hours at its ailing, unprofitable tire plant in the northern city of Amiens. But it faced the headwinds of rigid socialist labor legislation that provides goodies like a legally mandated 35-hour work week, five weeks’ vacation, and early retirement, plus the virtual impossibility of firing employees. No less daunting was the stubborn refusal of representatives from the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) to accept the company’s proposals. Goodyear finally threw in the towel in 2009 and started negotiations with Titan to take over the plant.
Maurice Taylor visited it and made an offer to keep about half of the 1,200 workers for a guaranteed two years. The CGT, faithful labor wing of the French Communist Party, countered with a demand for seven years of guaranteed job security. Faced with such intransigence and finding no support from government negotiators, Taylor pulled out of the deal last September. End of story.
Except that France, suffering from disastrous deindustrialization and record unemployment of 11 percent, urgently needed to keep the plant open. Hollande added to the political pressure by promising that he would reverse the unemployment trend in 2013. He had to find a white knight. So Montebourg contacted Taylor, suggesting that the negotiating climate had improved. Would he please come back and try again? Taylor went ballistic. In a February letter to Montebourg, he got a few things off his chest in a style that could only have been made in the U.S.A.
“Goodyear tried for over four years to save part of the Amiens jobs that are some of the highest-paid, but the French unions and the French government did nothing but talk,” he began in his best grizzly style. “I have visited that factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only 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!” Pointing out that heavily subsidized Chinese tire makers are flooding the French market, he predicted that in five years France’s national champion, Michelin, would be out of business. “Sir, your letter says you want Titan to start a discussion,” he added. “How stupid do you think we are? Titan is the one with the money and the talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government.…You can keep all the so-called workers. Titan has no interest in the Amiens factory.”
In a republican monarchy where feudal habits die hard, where a president simply replaces the king and cabinet ministers are treated like princes, this sort of straight-from-the-shoulder backtalk is unheard of. “Incendiary,” “unbelievable,” “insulting,” “scathing,” were the first adjectives that came to the French media mind. “How could he be so direct?” asked one shocked commentator. “He emptied his six-shooter at Montebourg,” said another. (Funnily, they were calling the Midwestern Taylor a Texan, as if such a swaggering, cocksure American could only be from there.) “Non, the French are not lazy!” screamed a banner headline in Le Parisien, unafraid of protesting too much.
France buzzed about little else for a week, the running theme being that only a predatory American businessman could be so rude to a high government official, so callous and unfeeling toward the working class. The leader of the CGT, Bernard Thibault, opined that Taylor’s remarks were “stupefying, an insult to the workers, typical of the heads of multinational companies who insult democracy itself.” (Coming from the leader of a communist-lining labor union that did what it could during the Cold War, on Soviet orders, to undermine French democratic capitalism, that one was especially savory.) The further to the left, the more virulent the reaction. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the surly leader of the extremist Party of the Left, spoke of Taylor as “this caricature of an insulting, gross, vulgar, loutish Yankee who’s like most of those Americans. How dare this ignorant primate speak like that to France?”
At this point the State Department jumped in to prevent l’affaire Taylor from becoming a full-blown diplomatic incident. Questions were raised during State briefings about the conflict between an American businessman and a French minister. Did the Obama administration consider it was harder to invest in France than other European countries? Were French workers really lazy? A State spokesman slathered on a thick layer of soothing balm. France was our oldest ally, we had deep relations, many American businesses operate there, yada yada yada. Besides, came the spokesman’s clincher, “I have a personal soft spot for France.” Next question.
THE MINISTER IN QUESTION, accustomed as he is to deference from commoners, at first seemed taken aback. Then, once the letter had been leaked to the French press, Montebourg got on his high horse and ripped off what he obviously considered a stinging reply. Taylor’s remarks, he declared in a letter marked by pompous hauteur, were “as extremist as they were insulting,” and revealed “perfect ignorance” about France. Everyone applauded the quality, productivity, and know-how of French workers. (He forgot to mention OECD studies showing they work 16 percent fewer hours than the OECD average, 25 percent fewer than industrialized Asian nations.) There were more than 20,000 foreign companies employing 2 million workers in the country, including 4,200 American subsidiaries. He even dragged in Lafayette and the Normandy beaches of June 6, 1944. He couldn’t resist a threatening cheap shot in closing: “You can count on me to have our customs officers inspect your imported tires with special zeal.” Take that!
After blowing off the obligatory steam about how crude, uncultured, and very américain Taylor is, some French commentators added a “Yes, but.” The problem is, they admitted during the soul-searching that followed, this is how many foreigners, including most Americans, really see us. Maybe he has a point. Le Monde editorialized that Taylor’s letter should make everyone reflect on how degraded France’s image in the world has become. “It’s high time we stopped thinking France can keep on acting like a Gallic village disconnected from the realities of today’s world.”
Tough-talking self-made businessman that he is, Maurice Taylor couldn’t resist one last crack after receiving Montebourg’s letter. “Most CEOs won’t say anything back to a government minister,” he told CNBC. “But Montebourg picked the wrong guy. I’m gonna tell him what it is. Those union guys are devout commies and they said you have to do it the French way. And I said, ‘Well, I’m not doing it if it’s gonna lose money.…You’re all nuts.’”
It’s tempting to believe he might be right. Especially when you see Marxist graffiti proclaiming “Travail = Exploitation” (“Work = exploitation”). Or consider that polls show 85 percent of French employees despise their jobs. Or come across two recent best-sellers, Bonjour Paresse (“Hello Laziness”) and the ironically titled Absolument dé-bor-dée! (“Completely Overwhelmed with Work!”). The former gives tips on how to get away with doing the least possible on the job. The latter describes bored bureaucrats getting through the day by sharing vacation photos, browsing the Internet, and planning their next big strike-cum-street demo. Maurice Taylor probably hasn’t read those. But he’s certainly not stupid enough to expect a Légion d’Honneur medal, with a kiss on both cheeks, the next time he visits France.