Nous n’avons pas de leçons à apprendre: The French React to American “Can Do.”


Today’s NYT/IHT has an article by Liz Alderman that gives a brilliantly illuminating insight into the dynamics of honor-shame culture and the degree to which it inhibits economic growth in France (HT/J and EF). The main characters are the French government, the French unions, the French media (including blogosphere). The title of my post comes from a common French expression that encapsulates their attitude nicely, and suggests a kind of stubborn pride that guarantees a flatter learning curve than one even they might hope for. I’ll intersperse the article and my comments with sections from an article in the Telegraph by my journalist friend, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

Quel Brouhaha! A Diatribe on Unions Irks the French


Published: February 20, 2013
Michel Spingler/Associated Press A Goodyear plant in Amiens, in northern France, is slated for closure.
PARIS — “How stupid do you think we are?”

With those choice words, and several more similar in tone, the chief executive of an American tire company touched off a furor in France on Wednesday as he responded to a government plea to take over a Goodyear factory slated for closing in northern France.

“I have visited the factory a couple of times,” Maurice Taylor Jr., the head of Titan International, wrote to the country’s industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, in a letter published in French newspapers on Wednesday.

“The French work force gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They have one hour for their breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three.”

“I told this to the French unions to their faces and they told me, ‘That’s the French way!’ ” added Mr. Taylor, a swaggering businessman who is nicknamed “the Grizz” by Wall Street analysts for his abrasive negotiating style.

Shades of France2 authorities from Charles Enderlin and Didier Epelbaum, when confronted with footage of Palestinian cameramen shooting clearly staged footage, responding, “Oh yes, well, you know, they do that all the time.” Public secrets are about things that are shameful on the public stage, but “everyone” knows they’re done “all the time,” and are willing to admit to them “off the record.” On record, it’s “how dare you impugn the impeccable journalistic integrity of Talal abu Rahma?” when he’s really a hack who, off the record (or in this case, on the record in Arabic) considers his profession a platform for waging war, or “how dare you accuse French workers of being slackers?” when they are. French media are masters of the public secret.

The real problem comes in when the privately confessed (wink, wink) truths emerge in a framework (in this case economic reality) where they are clearly not acceptable. In an honor-shame culture, the response is aggression.

His decidedly undiplomatic assessment quickly struck a nerve in France, where concerns about declining competitiveness and the divisive tax policies of President François Hollande’s government have led some economists to ask whether the nation is at risk of becoming the next sick man of Europe.

Mr. Montebourg, who is known for lashing out at French corporate bosses without hesitation, initially seemed at a loss for words on how to respond to the American charge.

“I do not want to harm French interests,” he said when asked about Mr. Taylor’s letter. Later, Mr. Montebourg released a letter to Mr. Taylor, calling the executive’s comments “extreme” and “insulting,” adding that they pointed to a “perfect ignorance” about France and its strengths, which continue to attract international investors.

I especially like the “perfect ignorance,” and the “insulting.” Only in an honor-shame culture does one respond to criticism as insulting rather than with substantive rebuttal. Montebourg’s letter is full of statistics “proving” how France looks great on paper. Actually the situation in France is problematic to say the least. Notes Moutet,

Just when the bluff was being called on France’s unrealistic growth predictions by the EU (finance minister Pierre Moscovici kept promising 0.8 per cent for 2013 until Tuesday, when incontrovertible European figures forced Hollande to admit that the figure will be much closer to zero)…

Then there’s the fact that Hollande had been busy reversing Sarkozy’s limited reforms, (e.g., moving retirement age from 60-62 years old with full pension, that it’s nearly impossible to fire people, so that many employers don’t want to hire them, that absenteeism in the French civil service (which is a quarter of the entire labor force). Moutet refers to two recent bestsellers:

Consider that two of the best-selling books in the last decade were Bonjour Paresse (“Hello, Laziness”) by one Corinne Maier, employed by the largely state-owned utility EDF, in which she rolled out a number of clever strategies to do the least work at the office, and Absolument dé-bor-dée! (“Li-ter-al-ly snowed under!”) by Zoé Shepard, a regional civil servant who vividly described her experiences in the Aquitaine administration of “how to work 35 hours in the month,” from sick days competitions to misappropriation of expenses.

Again, it’s characteristic of honor-shame cultures that work is considered demeaning, that the person who does the least work is successfully getting over on others, and those who work are chumps.

French media outlets minced no words. “Incendiary!” “Insulting!” and “Scathing!” were just a few of the terms replayed on French newspaper Web sites and on the airwaves throughout the day. The French blogosphere lit up with hundreds of remarks condemning the “predatory” American corporate culture that Mr. Taylor seemed to represent; other commentators who ventured to admit that there might be something to Mr. Taylor’s observations were promptly bashed.

Note the policing of conformity here: if you agree even slightly with Taylor (i.e., if you’re self-critical), you’ve betrayed the collective, la [belle] France. Here’s one blog which calls Taylor a “thug” and expresses astonishment that the Right was either stunningly silent or even supported Taylor:

Et le voyou Maurice Taylor, patron de l’entreprise américaine de pneus Titan, qui vient d’insulter les syndicats et les salariés français, et que la droite ne condamne pas, voire soutient dans une certaine mesure … [And the thug, MT… who comes to insult the French unions and the salaried workers, and whom the Right does not condemn, indeed even supports to some extent…]

It’s all so blindingly obvious: Our side (France, the Left) is right.

And France’s main labor union wasted no time in weighing in.

Mickaël Wamen, the head of the Confédération Générale du Travail union at the Goodyear plant, in Amiens, said Mr. Taylor belonged in a “psychiatric ward.”

There’s an interesting rhetorical ploy: call people who give you feedback from the real world “crazy.”

A spokesman for Mr. Taylor did not immediately respond to calls for comment. France’s 35-hour workweek, its rigid labor market and the influence that labor unions hold over the workplace have long been a source of aggravation for businesses.

Last month, after a government report warning that French competitiveness was slipping, labor unions and business leaders struck a deal to overhaul swaths of the labor code, a move Mr. Hollande said was needed to burnish France’s international allure as a place to do business.

Burnish their allure or their alluring image? Why bother? In Montebourg’s letter France looks great.

With unemployment above 10 percent and growth slowing, the government has also been desperate to avoid large-scale layoffs. Mr. Montebourg has even brandished the threat of nationalization to try to save jobs. PSA Peugeot Citroën, ArcelorMittal, Sanofi and Air France all announced big job cuts last year as Europe’s long-running debt crisis hit their bottom lines.

So it was no surprise that Mr. Montebourg approached Titan International last year to ask if it would take over the Goodyear factory, which was scheduled to close because of labor disputes and sagging profitability — a move that would threaten 1,173 jobs.

Titan had already considered taking over the Goodyear factory’s farm tire operations. But it dropped the plan in 2011 after union representatives opposed a deal, saying they suspected Titan would close production of passenger-vehicle tires if the group took over. Tensions between Mr. Taylor and the union were evident at the time in a Titan news release, which included Mr. Taylor’s observation that “only a nonbusiness person would understand the French labor rules.”

In other words, they’re shaped by social forces that defy economic logic. So don’t bring in economic reality.

In January, Mr. Montebourg tried to entice Titan back to the negotiating table, saying he hoped unions would put “some water in their wine, that managers put some wine in their water, and that Titan would drink the wine and the water of both” and reach an accord.

But late last month, as union workers protested en masse at the Amiens site, with a large police presence, Goodyear told workers it would close the plant and cut its French work force by 39 percent.

In his letter, dated Feb. 8, Mr. Taylor explained his reasons for refusing to come back to the negotiating table. “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,” Mr. Taylor wrote.

As Henry Higgins put it: “The French don’t care what they say, actually, just so long as they pronounce it correctly.”

“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.”

The voice of a man who is being asked to spend his money and energy supporting a French fantasy. How stupid do the French think he is? Well they’d rather he be stupid than they admit that they have lessons to learn from those cowboy Americans. As Minister Montegue put it:

“Can I remind you that Titan, the company you head is 20 times smaller than Michelin, the French technology leader with a global reach, and 35 times more profitable? That shows the extent that Titan could have learnt and gained enormously from a French base.”

This is all about face. No, no, no. I don’t have anything to learn from you, you have something to learn from me!

He [Taylor] said his company would seek to produce cheaper tires in India or China, where he said Titan would pay the workers less than one euro an hour, and then sell the tires back to the French. He predicted that Michelin, the French tiremaker, would not be able to compete with lower prices and would have to halt production in France within five years.

“You can keep your so-called workers,” he wrote. “Titan is not interested in the Amiens factory.”

In his response, Mr. Montebourg reacted strongly to what he called Mr. Taylor’s “condemnable calculation” and noted that France and its European partners were working to stop illegal dumping of imports.

“In the meantime,” he added, “rest assured that you can count on me to have the competent government agencies survey your imported tires with a redoubled zeal.”

Ah! Government jobs for zealous workers tasked with taking vengeance on someone who dared to disturb their dream-world. And readers of Fouad Ajami might think that only Arabs live in Dream Palaces.

8 Responses to Nous n’avons pas de leçons à apprendre: The French React to American “Can Do.”

  1. E.G. says:

    The following episode (from Anne-Elisabeth Moutet’s Telegraph article) seems well indicative of the honour-mindset:

    After the election, but before the finance team had moved into Bercy – the name by which the ministry is known – back in May, Moscovici was forced to adjudicate on territorial disputes caused by Montebourg.

    The office of the finance minister himself is traditionally on the sixth floor. Montebourg tried to dislodge the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, from the floor below, at the same time as attempting to appropriate the parking space in the courtyard assigned to the foreign trade secretary, Nicole Bricq.

    In both cases Montebourg’s machinations failed and he ended up, fuming, on the third floor, even further down the building than the minister for tourism and trade secretary, Sylvia Pinel.

  2. The French are still waiting for their cleverness or beauty to get them out of the fix. Two quotes from NYC in the early 1980s come to mind: the real golden rule, “he who has the gold makes the rules” and “we are in this business for one money, reason!”

  3. w.w.wygart says:

    Dr. Landes,

    Was this a very long way of saying that France is an honor-shame culture at heart? Has it always been this way, or is this a recent development?

    I have my own unique perspectives on the whimsical ways of the ‘bargaining unit’ vs ‘management’ divide a l’Américain, but I will spare you all, except to say that the American worker bee understands that, in general, when they show up at work they are there to work, even if they resent, as a group, the fact that the ‘management class’ treat them as expenses to be minimized, rather than the foundation of their organizations productivity.

    On the other hand, I’ve never ‘worked’ in France, but I remember once in Italy being tasked with the unenviable job of trying to roust a theater crew from the local ‘caffè’ [with the help of our interpreter] so we could start our company rehearsal on time. They all eventually turned out to be quite competent, but had their own interpretation of what ‘call-time’ actually was, and which was in significant disagreement with the contract documents that the silly Americans were laboring under. Eventually, I was able to get my way by [lying] persuading them that Americans are pretty slow and really do need the extra time to focus the lights and all of those other things a touring theater company needs to do to get the job done in a professional manner.


    From a Connecticut born yankee’s perspective I’m not sure if this is ‘honor shame’ or just inculcated laziness – there we go – mortal sins again, and I was raised UU not Catholic.


    • @ Wygart

      “From a Connecticut born yankee’s perspective I’m not sure if this is ‘honor shame’ or just inculcated laziness”

      Wygart, i think there are more factors at play than just laziness. EG’s example (comment above yours) about petty competitions for the higher floor or the parking space, and also Dr Landes’ portrayal of the petty vengeful malices of monsieur Montebourg, or the french unwillingness to admit they have something to learn from the Americans whom the French love to perceive as rednecks, all these things attest to the presence of honor-shame dispositions.

      True, it is not the Islamic variety of honor, no violence involved, but then this only means that we must enrich our concept of honor-shame by viewing it as a matter of degree, as the totality of the honor-shame distinct mindsets varying from the most coarse (Islamic variety) to the most attenuated (French variety) – Greeks are in between with a tilt towards Mohamed (old Ottoman habits die hard).

      As far as the French are concerned we don’t need to dig that far. Just listen to them when they talk, the sound of them speaks tons of pretense (if you also start looking at the gestures, you have corroboration). And i think that pretentious people are honor-shame minded, though i am not sure about which causes which (more likely their interaction is two-way).

      “On the other hand, I’ve never ‘worked’ in France, but I remember once in Italy being tasked with the unenviable job of trying to roust a theater crew from the local ‘caffè’ [with the help of our interpreter] so we could start our company rehearsal on time. They all eventually turned out to be quite competent, but had their own interpretation of what ‘call-time’ actually was, and which was in significant disagreement with the contract documents that the silly Americans were laboring under. Eventually, I was able to get my way by [lying] persuading them that Americans are pretty slow and really do need the extra time to focus the lights and all of those other things a touring theater company needs to do to get the job done in a professional manner.



      That’s one thing about honor-shame, it doesn’t allow its victim to be as flexible as you have been.

      They take themselves too seriously to allow someone to view them as inferiors.

  4. E.G. says:

    Was this a very long way of saying that France is an honor-shame culture at heart? Has it always been this way, or is this a recent development?

    We’re all founded on the basis of honour-shame. In Western cultures, there was a double evolution (1) in the means to express these notions (2) in the role they play once guilt was introduced (by you-know-who) – with varying degrees among the cultures, as in the French/Italian vs. N. American.
    There used to be honour murders in Europe, then they evolved into less brutal forms (you don’t kill your unmarried pregnant daughter, you send her to a Monastery), then the physical aggression has been replaced by the verbal mode (you don’t actually kill someone with several articles, but s/he’s socially or professionally dead).
    And there are many ways to honour someone, less these days for some innate status and more for achievements.

  5. akmofo says:

    The questions to ask are:

    1/ Who cares about corporate interests?
    2/ Do we live to work, or do we work to live?

    I think the French people, as I understand them, are correct in showing the finger to the Vatican/CIA corporate slave plantations. Unfortunately, the French don’t go far enough. What the French, and everyone else for that matter, need to do is completely dis-incentivize all manner of profit making and slave harvesting by the Vatican/CIA corporate matrix. Effectively, through correct taxation, these Vatican/CIA corporations should become short lived public utilities, where their predation is reversed, is channeled back towards the local public purse and local public works, and where hopefully shortly thereafter their monopolies and they themselves completely cease to exist. In other words, the limited corporate charter to operate should become limited again, as a short-lived step towards complete corporate extinction. To be included in this would be the Vatican (and other “religious” corporate mafias), from which btw all the other corporations originate.

  6. Martin J. Malliet says:

    “L’État, c’est la grande fiction à travers laquelle tout le monde s’efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde.” – Frédéric Bastiat, Journal des débats.

    There is nothing really new in this debate of today, the same question was already debated at the French Assemblée Nationale around 1850, when Frédéric Bastiat was an elected member and his admonitions fell on a majority of deaf ears. It was the time of the discovery of democratic politics in France after the 1848 February revolution. Once you’ve started to confuse interests and claims with rights, you’re into an endless debate and struggle to make your interests and claims prevail over those of others. Misrepresentation of each other’s interests, claims and motives is a necessary weapon in that struggle. Honour-shame culture is just another name for the culture of self-righteousness, it’s not an explanation in itself. The culture of self-righteousness is better explained, I think, as the inevitable consequence of the disrespect of the natural law (the respect of individual natural rights). And Frédéric Bastiat said the same thing in 1850.

    It’s like those girls who come to a public place like a café to show off their new cell phones and boots, and then start a fight with you because they don’t like you when you’re looking at them in an incomprehending manner. They feel like they have a ‘right’ to tell you what is the ‘right’ thing for you to do. That’s the meaning of the word self-righteousness. I told them: “Ce n’est pas parce que vous n’avez rien dans la tête, que vous devez avoir des prétentions. Je comprends bien, n’ayant rien dans la tête vous avez du mal à vous en apercevoir. Mais c’en est pas moins vrai pour autant.” Incomprehending stares is all I got. And silence, which is not too bad under the circumstances.

    As long as you haven’t found a way to effectively shame the self-righteous about their self-righteousness, these debates are totally hopeless. Socrates was sentenced to death for it, and accepted the death sentence because of that hopelessness.

    I’m thinking of politics, not of dimwitted girls, who are a nuisance, not a real danger, as French politics is for Europe. The most promising strategy I would think is to ask for an opt-out: instead of trying to invalidate self-righteous claims directly, just let them have it, but ask for respect of your right not to be part of it. Their self-righteous maliciousness will then come out into the open. Because respecting your right to be on your own would mean defeat for them.

    Last time I was in Paris, I couldn’t find Raymond Boudon’s “Pourquoi les intellectuels n’aiment pas le libéralisme” (2004) in any bookstore (Amazon still has it, though). The woman I asked at Gibert-Jeune even remembered the book, said she had read it, while showing that she hadn’t liked it. So I don’t know how Raymond Boudon explains it. I know how Anthony de Jasay explains it: (classical) liberalism is anti-political, and political attempts at redemption are like toys for bright boys, they don’t want to give them up.

    It’s a sad story, because the French had in fact far better liberal thinkers than the ‘Anglo-Saxons’: Alexis de Tocqueville, Frédéric Bastiat, Benjamin Constant are much better at giving you an idea of the connection between liberty (to each his own) and the achievement of the human spirit than a puritan like Adam Smith. That’s why French social-democrats concentrate on fustigating Anglo-Saxon liberalism and conveniently forget their own more convincing liberals. Fundamentally, the best explanation for the anti-liberal bent in French politics is still in Tocqueville’s “L’ancien régime et la révolution”: they lost the taste and practice of liberty and self-government already under the ancien régime, a long time ago.

    Someone should have warned Maurice Taylor about that, because now he has only made things worse.

    PS: Saturday evening in a restaurant I met a French woman temporarely staying in Brussels and a couple from her home town Tours who were paying her a visit. When I invited them for a drink afterwards, they dragged me to some street bar offering exotic cocktails and shots of Brazilian rum. I had one too, but didn’t like it, told these Frenchies that I liked cognac better. It has become too expensive, they said. And why is that, I asked. They didn’t know, but they liked to talk a lot about France going backwards. They guy even maintained that French Laguiole pocket-knives are now made in China. I have one in my pocket, and I don’t believe that it is made in China, it can’t be that bad.

    • akmofo says:

      @ Martin J. Malliet February 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm

      “L’État, c’est la grande fiction à travers laquelle tout le monde s’efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde.” – Frédéric Bastiat, Journal des débats.

      Of-course, this is another lie by a wolf in sheep’s dress. That the state is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everyone, is a complete lie. People have so such illusions and never have. Rather, the reality of the situation is, the state is forced upon people by the government mafia working for privileged banking aristocracy who then live at the expense of everyone else.

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