Pardon My French

An American takes on France—and the world.

May 17 2013 by Joe Queenan


CEO Maurice “Morry” Taylor of Titan Industrial recently made waves in Europe when he sent a sharply worded letter to a high-ranking French government official complaining about French labor union practices. These practices, he explained, were making it very difficult for his Illinois-based company to produce competitively priced wheels in La Belle France. If the situation did not improve, he intimated in the strongest possible terms, he’d start making tires in China. Or India. Or somewhere where labor was dirt cheap and people were happy to have the work. In the course of the letter, he basically came right out and asked whether the French thought that Americans were stupid.

This was sort of a trick question, putting the French official in a very difficult position. Rather than simply replying “yes,” the way Charles de Gaulle, Francois Mitterand or Napoleon Bonaparte would have, Arnaud Montebourg, France’s minister for industrial renewal, fired back that the American’s remarks were “as extreme as they were insulting” and showed his “perfect ignorance of our country and its solid advantages.”

For the life of me, I can’t see what the big deal is here. All Taylor did was call a spade a spade.

“It shows how screwed up things are in France when a company tries to save jobs,” is what Taylor wrote. “Titan has other acquisitions that have been on hold. Now, Titan will pursue those options instead of waiting for the French union to start thinking about their members. Only a non-business person would understand the French labor rules. The French workers are very good at what they do when they work; but as I told the union personnel, you cannot get paid seven hours for three hours of work.”

Taylor, who at no point used profanity in his missive, was by no means being extreme in his views. He simply registered his objection to the way French unions seemed to be obstructing him. CEOs tend to dislike unions, at least in this country, so it would be hard to make the case that Taylor’s views were in any way a deviation from the norm. What made the comments so unusual was that Taylor actually came right out and said what an awful lot of American CEOs doing business in France believe: “We hate your unions. You guys are killing us. And, by the looks of it, you don’t understand this, which suggests that you think we’re stupid.”

I am certainly not arguing that Taylor’s approach was the best way to make friends and influence foreigners, but there is something refreshing about the kind of direct, no-nonsense action that he took. It would be really nice if Taylor could be persuaded to bang out a couple other shoot-from-the hip, no-holds-barred letters to European bureaucrats. Things like this:

Dear Minister for Spanish Industrial Renewal:
Are you stupid, or what? Minister for Industrial Renewal? What Industrial Renewal? You have 27 percent of your work force unemployed. They shouldn’t call you the Minister for Industrial Renewal. They should call you the Minister for the Industrial Heimlich Maneuver.

And this letter to the Italian Minister for Industrial Renewal:
Dear Signor or Signora:
You must be really stupid if you think that anybody’s going to invest in your ridiculous country. Didn’t you guys just have a stand-up comic run for president? A guy named Beppe Grillo? And isn’t the guy with the second-highest vote total being investigated for sex with an underage prostitute? After running your economy right into the ditch in a previous stint as president? And you think this is a congenial environment for a U.S. wheel manufacturer? What do you think Americans are? Stupid?

And this letter to the Minister of Greek Industrial Renewal:
People in your country are very good at what they do. When they do it. The problem is, they only do it about 20 hours a week. Think I’m building any factories in your jerkwater republic? Think again. Things have been going straight downhill with you guys since Pericles blew town.

Finally, this letter to the North Korean Minister for Industrial Renewal:
Dear Sir or Madam:
Read my letter to the French guy and get back to me. It would be a waste of time for me to even talk to you clowns. What do you think I am? Stupid?