A British businessman has gotten himself into trouble for making injudicious comments about the French and their approach to life and work. It’s not the first time. The French, of course, are easy targets on everything,from the 35-hour working week to trumpeting spending cuts that actually turn out to be a small increase in spending.
With that in mind, Quartz has put together some of the best rants from les etrangers about the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
Andy Street, an executive at the British retailer John Lewis, was recently in Paris to collect an award. He was delayed coming back to London and proceeded to describe the experience at a dinner, which was then widely reported. The French, he said, are ”sclerotic, hopeless, and downbeat,” adding that “nothing works and worse, nobody cares about it. If you’ve got investments in French businesses, get them out quickly.”
Then it got worse. “You get on the Eurostar from something I can only describe as the squalor pit of Europe, Gare du Nord, and you get off at a modern, forward-looking station” in London, Street said. The award Street went to collect, which he described as ”frankly revolting,” became for him a symbol of his neighbors across the Channel. “If I needed any further evidence of a country in decline, here it is,” he said. “Every time I [see it], I shall think, God help France.”
Street has since apologized. Readers in France may be interested to hear that John Lewis plans to launch a French language site soon.
In 2013, the boss of US tire company Titan, Maurice Taylor, was asked to consider an investment in a loss-making Goodyear plant in the north of France. He responded in the style that got him the nickname “the Grizz.” ”I have visited that factory a couple of times,” he said in a letter to the French minister for industrial recovery, Arnaud Montebourg. “The French workforce gets paid high wages but only works 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!”
He later added: “How stupid do you think we are?” The head of a French union replied that Taylor belonged “more in a psychiatric ward than at the reins of a multinational company,” and Montebourg noted that France’s Michelin was 35 times more profitable than Titan.
There are many more examples from less high-profile sources. For example, Swiss recruitment firms have reportedly shunned French candidates because they are “too lazy,” “arrogant,” and often phone in sick on Mondays and Fridays. ”There’s always a problem. It’s totally different with the Spanish and the Portuguese,” the head of one recruitment firm told Le Matin Dimanche.
Other criticisms come from within. Chinese immigrants in France, for example, are unhappy with the 35-hour working week limit. ”As I see it, when you work, you’re paid. So why stop at 35 hours?” one told Reuters. Another said: “We Chinese think all the unemployment is because people can’t work enough.”
The history of French-bashing goes way back. The French writer and journalist Jules Huret visited Germany and wrote up his account, which was published as “De Hambourg aux marches de Pologne: en Allemagne” in 1908. In it, the head of a large bank in Westphalia tells Huret:
There’s too much talking in your offices, large and small. We are always surprised when we go to Paris for work for all the time lost to ‘chatting.’ An appointment is made for a prompt 10 a.m. Everyone greets each other, they self-congratulate, they ‘chat,’ then they broach the subject as if they’re scared of having to decide. From 11:30, people look at their watch, and there is always someone to exclaim, “Ah, should we go to lunch now? We will discuss more at the table!”
Even in Huret’s time, there was confusion about France’s own self-worth and its place in the world. Considering his country’s neighbor, which was growing in power, Huret wrote:
How is it that these people, poor, composed only 50 years since of small tradesmen, functionaries, sordid peasants, and wretched farmworkers, living on infertile soil, has succeeded in so short a time, in passing rich France in the business field, and will soon do the same with haughty England in lines in which she has long had the monopoly?
Those words—with some minor adjustments for political correctness—could have been written in an editorial in a French newspaper today.