There is one topic that has leapt out of the many automotive headlines this week, a topic which has scandalised many, but left others surprisingly nodding in agreement.
I thought France would quieten down a little after last week’s tumultuous combination of marathon union talks with Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen, laced with both automakers’ full-year results, but the fires have been stoked in a quite unexpected way.
Step forward American tyre manufacturer, Titan International and its charismatic CEO, Maurice Taylor, who has set an incendiary cat among the pigeons by claiming French workers only put in a three hour shift each day, dividing the rest of the time between eating and talking.
Taylor’s comments were made in a letter to French Economic Redevelopment Minister, Arnaud Montebourg, no stranger to controversy he and follows Titan’s decision to pull out of bidding for the Goodyear Amiens Nord tyre plant in northern France, which is facing closure resulting in up to 1,200 redundancies.
The Titan boss’ trenchant remarks have provoked a furious reaction amongst many, not least the tough CGT union, whose secretary-general, Bernard Thibault, denounced the content as an “insult, not only to workers, but to democracy,” while Montebourg fired off a furious riposte, calling Taylor’s comments, “extreme, as well as insulting,” and “demonstrating “a perfect ignorance of what our country is about.”
The CGT – one of France’s hardline unions – is engaged in bitter battle with PSA Peugeot Citroen concerning its plans to axe up to 8,000 staff and close its Aulnay plant near Paris – and claims to represent 80% of the Goodyear Amiens Nord workforce.
“If there were still any naive people with regard to the attitude of multinational directors, we have the confirmation by letter of what they are thinking,” said Thibault.
Despite Taylor not being immediately available to comment from the US, Montebourg’s spokeswoman confirmed to me the existence of the letter, which she described as “insulting to French workers, extremely impolite” and “a bit threatening.”
What seems to have got the French backs up is Taylor’s supposed suggestion he could source far cheaper tyres from emerging markets, a move that had Montebourg reaching for his phrase book and invoking the support of European allies to fight “le dumping” as he put it.
Talk of allies did not stop there with the colourful French Cabinet Minister – rarely out of the headlines for his combative views – citing the US riding to the liberation of France – along with others – in 1944.
“We French will never forget the sacrifice of young, American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy to deliver us from Nazism in 1944,” he thundered, while making clear at the same time his admiration for President Obama, an admiration he implies, not shared by Mr Taylor.
The – extraordinarily long – letter also pauses to take a bit of a sniffy side swipe at Titan and what Montebourg perceives as its scale in the tyre world: “Can I remind you that Titan, the business you run, is 20 times smaller than Michelin, our international technological leader and 35 times less profitable,” adds the politician.
Taylor styles himself as ‘The Grizz’ with his website blog showing a huge grizzly bear for good measure. The Grizz ran for President in 1996 and it’s fair to say he doesn’t exactly come across as a doyen of the Democrat Party.
Why’s he done it? I’ve been following this story all week and it’s generated enormous coverage worldwide – acres of newsprint have been devoted to The Grizz’s outspoken views and he’s ripped open a can of worms in France that has set the chattering classes ablaze with impassioned debate.
Taylor’s certainly not endearing himself to the militant CGT union at Goodyear’s Amiens Nord plant, but could he be positioning himself for another go at the tyre operation? He’s massively burnt his bridges with the feisty Montebourg – who appears to be relishing le combat shouting at reporters – “don’t worry he’ll [Taylor] have a reply” – but this issue is far larger than anyone’s sensitivities.
It strikes at the heart of a debate that has been unleashed since the recent election of socialist President Francois Hollande and his unashamedly left-leaning government, about how France is to regain competivity in the face of a stagnant if not declining home market, high wages and a vociferously powerful unionised workforce.
But in no way are Monsieur Montebourg’s views shared by the political elite in France. A succession of politicians strode on to French airwaves this week to give their tuppence ha’penny worth, and which reflect the broad spectrum of diverse opinion on the touchy subject.
The Grizz may now represent a convenient shorthand bogey man straight out of central casting, who conforms to a French socialist’s view of what American big bosses are all about, but he’s struck a raw nerve that goes to the heart of modern France.
Just to illustrate Taylor is not alone in his views, here are a few quotes from French politicians on TV and radio this week, that will give the American some heart as he ponders the storm he’s unleashed.
“I would ask Monsieur Montebourg to remain calm – to not be in a permanent state of excitement – a sort of hero fitting against bosses.”
“I don’t want to continue this OK Coral pistol duel – we are in the middle of a cowboy film between the two.”
“Let’s not be in denial – it faithfully reflects an image of a large number of investors and the image of French policy and the French government.”
Just in case anyone thought the French were going soft, there very much remains a vanguard of the old school and that’s not unsurprisingly from the union side.
The labour bodies are understandably anxious as the French unemployment rate soars close to 11% and as it witnesses the increasing phenomenon of outsourcing or ‘delocalisation’ and of the dumping problem which they believe needs blatant protectionism.
Taylor makes reference to using workers from India at EUR1 per hour to make his tyres and immediately got to the heart of the dumping debate raging in both Europe and the US.
The US is not immune to the trend – indeed in the tyre sector this is hot news in Washington and beyond – but it also sparks controversy this side of the pond.
“I am not afraid to say we need protectionism – notably on a European level – to talk about tyres that come from Indo-China,” Force Ouvriere general secretary, Jean-Claude Mailly told French TV this week. “There are norms to respect.”
Montebourg echoed the union leader by noting: “You raise your intention to exploit workers in certain countries to flood our markets. “I have to tell you this short term, reprehensible calculation will come up, sooner or later, against a justifiable reaction.
“Such is the case already that France and its allies are organising themselves against dumping. In the meantime, rest assured, I will be looking with redoubled zeal at your imported tyres.”
Claim and counter claim are flying back and forth across the Atlantic with dizzying speed.
Meanwhile in the middle of all this polemic is the Goodyear tyre factory in northern France, whose 1,200 or so workers face redundancy, while the big beasts of the corporate and political jungles argue about lofty ideas of what constitutes national character and attitude.
I’ve tried several times to get hold of Maurice Taylor and have been promised “I’m on the list” by Titan – but is there any way back for his company to take over the ailing French operation?
Taylor’s stirred up a hornet’s nest in Paris but lighting the touchpaper has smoked out a number of – French – sympathisers to his cause.
He may just have set in motion a painful debate for Hollande’s administration they cannot ignore.
Addendum: It appears Taylor has now replied to Montebourg’s letter – the CEO is due to contact just-auto to discuss any update.