France has much to criticise it for, as do all other countries, even – and I know this will come as a shock to most Americans – the USA. Moreover, France and all other countries must be criticised, especially by those who like and understand them.
Now it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that few Americans like France and even fewer understand it. In general, nuanced sensitivity to foreign ethos isn’t high on the list of most salient American virtues. That’s why, whenever they level opprobrium at other lands, they evince not so much loving concern as obtuse pig-headedness.
Unlike the British, whose understated affection for the French goes back more than 1,000 years, the Americans don’t have such venerable history to fall back on. In fact, but for France’s support during their Revolution, the Americans would today be saluting the Union Jack, not Old Glory.
Much of their resentment is of recent provenance. It goes back about 10 years when the French presciently refused to support the Americans’ concerted effort to Islamise and radicalise the Middle East.
By way of revenge the Americans began to boycott French wine and cheese, which action ought to be mentioned in the dictionary entry for ‘masochism’. They also expurgated the word ‘French’ from their vocabulary, typically replacing it with ‘freedom’, as in ‘freedom fries’ and presumably – I’m guessing here – ‘freedom kissing’, ‘freedom fashion’ and ‘freedom letters’.
This is part of the background to the ill-mannered outburst by Maurice Taylor, CEO of the American tyre maker Titan International. He rudely declined an offer to buy a plant in Amiens, citing the laziness of French workers, the statutorily short hours they work, their long holidays and the time they take for lunch. ‘Do you think we’re stupid?’ he asked indignantly.
No Mr Taylor, I wouldn’t call you stupid. I’d call you ignorant – not so much of France’s work practices as of her ethos, which is fundamentally different from America’s, or for that matter Britain’s.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that the French economy is held back by the country’s stifling labour laws, predominance of vastly corrupt and powerful unions, expropriatory taxation and loyalty to the EU. It’s also true that the French as a nation spend less time at work than the Americans and the British. In fact the French economy is ticking away on 20 percent fewer man-hours than in the UK.
Yet, even though France and Britain have roughly the same population, France’s GDP is greater than ours, which, if my arithmetic serves, suggests their workers are considerably more productive. The quality of the goods they produce, including in the sector served by Mr Taylor, isn’t too shabby either. Show me a man who’d choose Titan’s Goodyear tyres for his car, in preference to Michelins, and I’ll show you someone who knows nothing about driving.
How do they do it, considering all the self-imposed yokes on their economy? I don’t know. But, discounting divine intervention, one could guess at some possible reasons.
For example, for all their recent efforts to reverse the situation, the French are still better educated than either the Americans or the British. They could even be more talented, though something inside me refuses to accept this possibility. It could also be that their absence of maniacal dedication to working themselves into an early grave, something observable in the US, makes French workers happier, calmer, less exhausted and therefore more productive.
Max Weber, who knew a thing or two about such matters, ascribed the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic. One wonders if, should he live today, he’d ascribe some of capitalism’s decline to the same source.
Catholics or, to be more precise and up to date, those raised in a Catholic culture, work to live. Many Protestants, religious or merely cultural, live to work. From their early childhood they have been imbued with belief in the redemptive value of hard work. And even acquisitiveness, to which the traditional Christian attitude is at best tepid, has acquired a religious dimension in Protestant, especially Calvinist, countries.
According to Calvin, wealth is God’s way of telling its recipient that he’s living a righteous life. And hard work is ipso facto a function of virtue. That’s why so many Americans and even Englishmen feel awkward about leaving the office on time, even if there’s no reason to stay late.
To cite the example of the industry with which I’m familiar, advertising on both sides of the Atlantic, someone who heads for the door at 5.30 on the dot draws disapproving glances. Not working weekends is taken as a sign of negligence and moral failure. ‘If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday’ is the motto of one of America’s major agencies.
However, many of my American and British colleagues have worked in France, and they have instructive stories to tell. The French leave work early, have more public holidays, take all of August off (‘toute la France est en vacances,’ as they put it), knock off at lunchtime on Fridays, especially in summer. And yet they get a lot done – at least as much as Anglophone admen do.
Part of the reason is that they spend a lot less time in meetings – another Protestant trait. As work to Protestants is a matter of life or death, it can’t be done in a haphazard manner – every ‘i’ must be dotted and every ‘t’ crossed before actual work can start. Reversing the Anglophone practice, the French do a bit of talking and a lot of working, thus saving hours every day for productive labour. This leaves them enough time and energy for their ubiquitous ‘cinque à sept’ trysts – occasionally even for more time with their families.
Personally, much as I deplore French statism, red tape and incipient government tyranny, I prefer the French take on work ethic to the American. It’s understandable that Americans may feel differently, and they may even be right. But before running off at the mouth they would do well to learn a bit more about different cultures. Who knows, they may then learn to treat them with more respect and express themselves with more tact. As it is, the likes of Taylor give ‘tous les Anglo-Saxons’ a bad name.