PARIS (Reuters) — The CEO of a United States tire company has delivered a crushing summary of how some outsiders view France's work ethic in a letter saying he would have to be stupid to take over a factory when staff only put in three hours' work per day.
Titan International's Maurice "Morry" Taylor, who goes by "the Grizz" for his bear-like, no-nonsense style, told France's left-wing industry minister in a letter published by Paris media that he had no interest in buying a doomed plant.
"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," Taylor wrote on Feb. 8 in the letter in English addressed to the minister, Arnaud Montebourg.
"I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that's the French way!" Taylor added in the letter, which was posted by business daily Les Echos on its website on Wednesday and which the ministry confirmed was genuine.
"How stupid do you think we are?" he asked at one point. "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," he said. "You can keep the so-called workers."
As the leaked letter drew outrage in France, Montebourg penned a scathing response, spelling out the reasons why France routinely ranks as a leading destination for companies to invest, beating China and India in mid-2012.
"Can I remind you that Titan, the business you run, is 20 times smaller than Michelin, the French (tire) technology leader with international influence, and 35 times less profitable," Montebourg wrote, in a two-page letter in French.
"This just shows the extent to which Titan could have learned and gained, enormously, from a presence in France."
Montebourg's letter, a copy of which was sent to Reuters, said Taylor's comments, "as extremist as they are insulting", illustrated his ignorance of France.
Union leaders also reacted furiously. CGT official Mickael Wamen said Taylor belonged more "in an asylum" than in the boardroom of a multinational and noted his views were based on a visit to a troubled plant whose operations had been cut back.
The vicious exchange made for another public knock to France's business image after verbal attacks last year by Montebourg on firms seeking to shut ailing industrial sites prompted international derision.
Combined with concern over plans for a 75-per cent "millionaires' tax", Montebourg's antics drove London Mayor Boris Johnson to tell an international business audience that it seemed France was being run by left-wing revolutionaries.
Socialist president Francois Hollande may take some comfort in the view Taylor expressed of Washington: "The U.S. government is not much better than the French," he wrote, saying Western leaders were failing to halt state-subsidized Chinese exports.
The row has pitted an outspoken former anti-globalization campaigner, the loose cannon of Hollande's government, against a right-winger who revels in provocation and tough-talking.
Proud of being "The Grizz" — his group's logo features a cartoon bear and its website opens to the roar of a grizzly — Taylor has clashed with unions before and once suggested a U.S. judge was "smoking dope" after a ruling against his firm.
He built up Illinois-based Titan over 23 years into a global brand in tires for tractors and other off-road machinery and ran for the White House in the 1996 Republican primary, campaigning on a pro-business ticket.
At that time, he admitted to being "abrasive" in order to "get the job done": "The politicians, they all want you to like them," he told an interviewer. "I don't care if people like me."
To Montebourg, author of Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix the Government, wrote: "You're a politician so you don't want to rock the boat... France will lose its industrial business because its government is more government."
Taylor's letter was a response to Paris having approached Titan as a possible buyer of U.S. group Goodyear's Amiens Nord factory in northern France. Montebourg told reporters earlier on Wednesday that he would put his answer in a letter.
In it, he noted the United States is the number one investor in France with 4,200 U.S. subsidiaries employing nearly half a million people in the country. He said those firms appreciated French productivity and "savoir-faire" and warned that Paris would fight others which exploit cheap labour.
Montebourg has often lashed out at cheap imports of manufactured goods from low-wage countries such as China and last year told the boss of Indian steelmaker ArcelorMittal he was unwelcome in a spat over a shuttered plant in France.
Despite having per-head productivity levels that rank among the best in Europe, economists blame France's rigid hiring and firing laws for a long industrial decline that has dented exports. Many also fault the country's 35-hour work week for diminishing competitiveness with Germany.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co's Amiens Nord plant employs 1,250 people, who have been battling demands they work more shifts or accept layoffs. The site now faces closure.
Talks last year with Titan over a possible rescue fell down after a failure to reach a deal with unions on voluntary redundancies.
Taylor accused France of being at fault. "Titan is the one with the money and the talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government."