“How Stupid Do You Think We Are?”

A very frank response by a senior US businessman to a French government minister seeking to save the Goodyear tyre plant at Amiens from closure, has provoked a storm in the French media and drawn a sharp official rebuke.

US businessman Maurice M. Taylor, Jr. alleges French workers at the doomed Goodyear plant work only three hours a day. (Credit: Screengrab YouTube feed)

Les Echos published a translated copy of the original English letter from Maurice M. Taylor, Jr. chairman and chief executive of Titan International, to Arnaud Montebourg, French Minister for Industrial Renewal. The controversial minister, who has had run-ins with several foreign investors including steel-makerArcelor Mittal, has been negotiating with Titan and talking to the plant’s powerful communist-backed CGT-Confédération générale du travail trade union, in a bid to prevent a closure set to make 1,173 workers redundant.

According to Les Echos Mr Taylor wrote: “I have visited the factory a couple of times. 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. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that’s the French way! … Sir, your letter states you want Titan to start a discussion. How stupid do you think we are? Titan is the one with money and talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government. The French farmer wants cheap tires. He does not care if the tires are from China or India and governments are subsidizing them. Your government doesn’t care either… Titan is going to buy a Chinese tire company or an Indian one, pay less than one Euro per hour and ship all the tires France needs. You can keep the so-called workers. Titan has no interest in the Amien North factory. Best regards, Maurice M. Taylor, Jr. Chairman and CEO”‘.

Mr Taylor added: “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.”

According to FranceInfo.fr Minister Montebourg subsequently released a two page response in French qualifying Maurice Taylor’s remarks as “insulting”, “ignorant” and “extreme”. The minister went on to remind Mr  Taylor, that US investment in France was longstanding and lucrative, relations between the two countries dated back to Lafayette and France would never forget the World War II sacrifices of US soldiers on French territory.

The minister went on: “May I remind you that Titan, the business you run, is 20 times smaller than Michelin — a leading technology champion with an international presence  — and 35 times less  profitable? That is to say Titan could learn a lot from setting up in France (…) Be assured you can count on me to instruct the relevant authorities to monitor (…) with redoubled zeal all your tyre imports into France (…) (which with its European partners is working to end the damaging practice of dumping) (…) France is home to 20,000 foreign companies which account for two million jobs  (…) while the United States has made France its ” top European location for foreign investment.”

First page of the Minister’s response to Titan. Download the whole letter by clicking on the image

A CGT spokesman Mickaël Wamen told Radio France February 20 that Mr Taylor had first visited the plant during a severe downturn in production when the staff would obviously not have been working at full stretch. He described Mr Taylor – who ran for US President in 1996 as a Republican promising ‘. . . to bring sound fiscal management and business know-how to Washington’ – as a ‘far right figure equivalent in the US to our (Front National leader) Marine le Pen, who insults French workers and then announces he will flood the European market with cheap tyres from China’.

“This is not an incendiary letter is an insulting letter,” Mickaël Wamen of CGT later told Europe 1, …. he (Taylor) plans to break into the European market but is hardly going about it in a positive way”. He added that CGT had earlier intended to take Titan to court in France over the agreements reached between Goodyear and Titan related to the Amiens plant. ‘If he (Taylor) thinks he can simply fire French employees that easily he is sadly mistaken”.

Maurice Taylor, CEO of Titan since 1990 and nicknamed The Grizz in US business circles — is described as an astute businessman but his forthright views  provoked shock and shocked headlines in the French press, outrage quickly echoed by national TV and radio.

Le Monde’s headline was:  Goodyear : la lettre virulente du PDG de Titan à Arnaud Montebourg (the virulent letter from the Titan CEO to Arnaud Montebourg), while other news titles competed for stronger adjectives:

  • le PDG de Titan raille les salariés de l’usine d’Amiens – RFI” (“…rails against Amiens factory workers”)
  • Goodyear: la lettre au vitriol du PDG de Titan à Montebourg – La Tribune (“vitriolic letter to Montebourg”)
  • Goodyear : la lettre incendiaire du PDG de Titan à Montebourg – Metro France  (“incendiary letter to Montebourg”)
  • Goodyear : l’incroyable courrier du PDG de Titan à Montebourg … Les Echos (“incredible letter to Montebourg”)
  • Les « soi-disant ouvriers » de Goodyear : la lettre de Titan à … – Rue89 (“the so-called workers at Goodyear”)

Arnaud Montebourg, French Minister for Industrial Renewal (Credit: Mathieu Delmestre)

However commenters on several website including that of Le Nouvel Observateur and the news pages of Orange France were divided: “This morning a columnist on BFM / TV rightly pointed out that CGT has closed more companies and lost billions of euros for France, than any of the so-called rogue bosses. Anyway unions in France no longer represent anything but themselves and their officials keen to keep their privileges, and they are funded from the public purse,” said one Orange France commenter writing under a pseudonym. Véronique P noted on Le Nouvel Observateur: “While French workers are recognised as the most efficient (wealth creators) in Europe and No. 2 worldwide (ahead of the U.S.), these people would have us believe the opposite!! They do so largely by making use of the cheapest available labour and taking advantage of differences in living standards around the world.Well I say good luck to capitalism and cynical money power! Because we must ask will consumers buy tyres from countries using sweated labour? …”

According to OECD figures for 2011 France ranks well on productivity, at USD57.7 of GDP per hour, compared with USD55.3 in Germany.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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