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.
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.