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Now, to a war of words between an American capitalist and a French socialist minister. It's prompted chuckles on both sides of the Atlantic. The exchange highlights some humorous stereotypes and stark differences between the economic cultures of France and the United States. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It all started with a private letter from Morry Taylor, CEO of Illinois-based Titan tires. Taylor was addressing Arnaud Montebourg, France's flamboyant leftist minister for industrial renewal. Taylor wrote Montebourg that he was no longer thinking of buying an ailing Goodyear tire plant in northern France because he's not stupid. He told the BBC what he thought about French workers when he visited the plant.
MAURICE TAYLOR: I noticed that when you get to a machine and you're working, you work real good. You work as fine as any place and you make a great product. But half the time, you guys are walking around, having discussions. It reminds me of a beauty parlor. You got to work a full six hours, you're being paid for seven. And the union president, he stands up and says to me, that is the French way, Mr. Taylor.
BEARDSLEY: Taylor called French unions crazy, and said he'd open a factory in China, pay workers a fraction of French salaries, and export those tires back to France. The letter provoked a firestorm when it was published in the French press. In his written response, Montebourg called Taylor extremist and insulting. If Titan's tires are imported to France, threatened Montebourg, I'll make sure they're inspected with particular zeal. The epistolary war was entertaining, but it also struck a nerve.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: On Tuesday, workers at the ailing Goodyear plant came out in protest, angry about how they'd been portrayed in the media.
DAVID MERA: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: We're not lazy, says David Mera, who remembers Taylor's visit very well and describes him as walking with a cowboy swagger. He visited a wing of the plant that was at half capacity, says Mera. We want to work more. Goodyear reduced capacity at the Amiens plant five years ago when the union refused to accept layoffs. But workers ask why they should lose their jobs when the company is hugely profitable. In this crowd, the boss is always looking to exploit the worker. Morry Taylor fits that bill perfectly, says Michael Wamen, head of the plant's union.
MICHAEL WAMEN: (Through translator) He has no scruples. He made a fortune, and yet he wants to produce his tires in China at one euro an hour. He should hold off a bit. Maybe soon he'll be able to get his tires made for 30 cents an hour by children in Bangladesh.
BEARDSLEY: As they head for lunch under tents set out in front of the town hall, the workers say they don't earn big salaries - between 18 and $30,000 dollars a year. But one can't help but wonder whether the protective French employment model can survive in a globalized world. The episode has been an embarrassment for President Francois Hollande, who's struggling with high unemployment and an image that France is an unfriendly place for business. And it's not the first time his young, firebrand minister for industrial renewal has caused him headaches. Economist Jean Gilles Malliarakis says Montebourg leaked Taylor's letter to become a hero to the far left.
JEAN GILLES MALLIARAKIS: He is absolutely a demagogue. (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Malliarakis says French people know there's truth in what Taylor said. As protesting Goodyear workers stack up and set fire to an enormous pile of tires for the cameras, one can't help but notice the Dunlop plant right across the street, humming right along with no problems. The difference, I'm told, is instead of confrontation, unions and bosses there hammered out an agreement. Unions agreed to work longer, more difficult shifts and the bosses agreed to invest $50 million in the plant to keep it running. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.
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