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How lazy are French workers, really?

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A U.S. chief executive has accused French workers of spending way too much time drinking wine
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A U.S. chief executive has accused French workers of spending way too much time drinking wine

A U.S. industrialist accuses the French of slacking on the job, sparking a furor

An American chief executive has accused French workers of laziness in a tartly worded letter to a government official, sparking passionate denunciations in France. It all started when French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg approached Maurice Taylor, the CEO of Titan International, to buy a struggling tire factory in northern France. Taylor responded, "How stupid do you think we are?"

It gets worse. Here are excerpts from the letter, obtained by the French newspaper Les Echos:

I have visited that factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but only works 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!

Titan is going to buy a Chinese tire company or an Indian one, pay less than one euro per hour wage and ship all the tires France needs. You can keep the so-called workers. [Agence France-Presse]

Taylor's harsh words has set off a nationwide fit of pique that mirrors the American reaction (see: Freedom Fries) to France's opposition to the Iraq War. "Your comments, which are extremist as they are insulting, display a perfect ignorance of our country," responded Montebourg. He added that France would inspect Titan's imports with "redoubled zeal." CGT, the union representing workers at the factory, went further. "The limit has been passed," said union head Thierry Lepaon. "It's not the response of a minister that is necessary, but of the president of the Republic, who must demand respect for the citizens of his country."

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The French press is also up in arms. According to The New York Times:

"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. [New York Times]

It doesn't help that Hollywood could not have cast a better man to play the role of a ruthless capitalist. Taylor is reportedly nicknamed "The Grizz" for his aggressive, bear-like negotiating tactics, and even ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1996 on a pro-business platform. He has also claimed that the U.S. under President Obama is "not much better than the French."

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But is there any truth to Taylor's claim? According to the Organization Economic Cooperation and Development — a group of 34 industrialized countries that includes the U.S. — the French work the fourth fewest hours of any OECD member. (The Norwegians, Germans, and Dutch work less.) However, the French come in 7th when it comes to labor productivity rankings, though they are still behind the U.S.

Still, a national hysteria over the comments of a single American businessman — who, it cannot be stressed enough, is nicknamed The Grizz — suggests that Taylor touched a nerve. France is still struggling with 10 percent unemployment, and there is growing concern that the country has lost its competitive edge because of its strong worker protections. Indeed, the main reason Titan rejected the deal was because of union demands. French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, has already taken steps to water down the strength of unions. According to The Wall Street Journal:

France has moved to push employers to reach agreement with unions on more-flexible labor conditions. It is set to send a bill to parliament next month that would let companies cut working hours and wages when times are tough, lift some legal uncertainties related to layoffs and limit the time within which employees can appeal redundancy decisions. [Wall Street Journal]

Judging by the French public's reaction, Hollande may have a tough time selling such proposals. And in the meantime, the Goodyear factory is scheduled to be shuttered, killing more than 1,000 jobs.

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