PARIS — It is a battle of archetypes: Morry “the Grizz” Taylor, the millionaire American capitalist who owns tire manufacturer Titan International, has taken on Arnaud Montebourg, a handsome French Socialist and political comer whose evocative government title is minister of productive recovery.
In an unusual public exchange, the two have been trading insults about the work habits of the French, who, according to folklore, attach more importance to coffee breaks and long, winy lunches than to efficient production. It is an old and entertaining subject but one that has assumed new urgency in the fifth year of an economic crisis affecting France and its European neighbors.
In a letter to Montebourg, Taylor started the battle by saying bluntly that French workers at a tire plant he had visited are overpaid, lazy and coddled by a Socialist government enforcing such legally mandated rights as a 35-hour workweek, five weeks of vacation and early retirement. But the biggest problem, Taylor said, is what the workers do — or don’t do — while on the job.
“The French employees get high salaries but only work three hours,” he wrote in the letter, which was made available to the French media this past week. “They have an hour for their breaks and their lunches, chat for three hours and work for three hours. I said this in front of French union representatives. They said that’s the way it is in France.”
Montebourg shot back that Taylor’s accusations were “as extremist as they are insulting” and revealed “a perfect ignorance of what our country is.” He added: “Do you at least know what La Fayette did for the United States of America?”
The transatlantic spitball fight attracted attention here for several reasons. For one thing, workers at the Goodyear plant Taylor visited were shown on the nightly news demonstrating after hearing that their jobs were being phased out. For another, the two protagonists were appealing to stereotypes on both sides of the ocean: When French Socialists want to feel good about themselves, they tally the ways they differ from people like Taylor; judging by Taylor’s charges, he does the same in reverse.
Taylor, a 68-year-old arch conservative, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 on a platform summed up in the title of his book “Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government.” (Montebourg is a lawyer by profession.) Although he got only about 1 percent of the vote in GOP primaries, Taylor has gone on his merry way buying up dying corporations for profit.
Montebourg, 50, who garnered 17 percent of the vote in the Socialist Party’s presidential primaries last year, has positioned himself in President Francois Hollande’s government as an industrial nationalist. Although often not heeded by the cautious Hollande, he has advocated protectionist measures to ward off competition from cheap-labor countries such as China and vowed to protect France’s wheezing factories from predatory foreign capitalists by nationalization if necessary.
In any case, the work habits of the French have long been a hot topic here, the subject of jokes but also of such serious discussion that even the Socialist government has tried to change labor laws.
The conversation has intensified in recent months as France’s economic growth has flat-lined and factories continue to close, producing a 10 percent unemployment rate. For many economists, a big culprit is the high cost of production — an hour of work is $46 in France, compared with about $30 in the United States.
Despite the discouraging statistics, Taylor’s company tried for several years to buy part of the failing Goodyear tire factory in the northern city of Amiens, intending to abandon general production to specialize in heavy-duty agriculture tires. But the negotiations fizzled because, according to Taylor, French unions made unreasonable demands that were backed by the government.
When Goodyear announced Jan. 31 that it planned to close the plant, putting 1,250 French employees out of work, Montebourg wrote to Taylor suggesting that negotiations might resume on the plan for a partial acquisition. But the American would have none of it.
“Do you think we are that stupid?” he wrote back. “Titan is the one with the money and the know-how to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government.”
Montebourg retorted that 20,000 foreign companies operate in France, including 4,200 American subsidiaries that employ nearly half a million people and find they can do business just fine.
“Far from your statements, which are as ridiculous as they are nasty, all these businesses know and appreciate the quality and the productivity of the French workforce, the commitment, the know-how, the talent and the competence of French workers,” he said.
Unwilling to leave it there, Taylor granted an interview Friday to French news service Agence France-Presse and fired off another missive to Montebourg by e-mail.
“The extremist,” he told the minister, “is your government and its lack of knowledge on how to build a business.” He added: “Since you bring it up, why is unemployment so high in France and especially among young people? It is because of your government’s policies, sir.”