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How NOT to promote economic reform in France

In a recent American Spectator article, the magazine’s Paris correspondent, Joseph Harriss, narrates how American businessman Maurice Taylor was asked by the French government to save the ailing Goodyear company and its tyre factory in Amiens. Taylor visited the factory several times and held talks with the French government and labor unions, but their demands in terms of pay, retirement schemes, and working hours were unacceptable to him (because they’d make it impossible to run the factory at a profit) and consequently, Taylor has refused to buy the factory, not wanting to make a loss.

Unfortunately, instead of stopping there, Taylor decided to write an angry letter to the French minister of “productive redressment”, Arnaud Montebourg, where he denounced the rigid French labor code, high taxes, low working hours, and trade union influence in much stronger words than he should have, thus sparking a backlash and a new souring of Franco-American relations. Outrage was sparked across France in the media, the cafes, and the political arena. Reactions were almost universally along the lines of “Who does this arrogant American think he is? How dare he lecture us Frenchmen? How dare he tell us how to run our country?”

Montebourg shot back, and then, Taylor responded in kind in this tit-for-tat cycle. And economic reform remains completely stalled in France.

Why did Taylor fail in sparking any kind of reform? And how can one engineer it in France?

Taylor failed because, while he’s (mostly) correct on the facts – France does have a very rigid labor code, high taxes, and very influential labor unions, and all of this is stalling France’s economic growth – he tried to communicate them the wrong way: in a manner considered arrogant by the vast majority of the French media and political class writ large.

Instead of going gently and saying politely in so many words that he can’t buy the plant because it would bankrupt him – due to a rigid labor code and high taxes – he shot from the hip like a careless cowboy. That might work in the Midwest, but it won’t work in France. It will earn you more enemies than friends in the Hexagon.

To begin with, no nation on Earth, including the French, likes to be lectured on its domestic affairs by foreigners. Just go to any foreign country and try telling the locals how they should govern their own country. They’ll probably refuse to listen, even if you’re right on the facts. One of the reasons the US has utterly failed to democratize the Middle East is because the peoples of the region resent foreign meddling in their affairs. Likewise, the Chinese don’t like being lectured on human rights because foreign meddling in their country’s affairs is a very sensitive topic there.

The French are no different from other nations in this respect. Who says something makes a lot of difference. If a Frenchman or Frenchwoman makes a case for reform, they’ll listen, but if a foreigner starts lecturing them on the same subject, they’ll react very negatively. In fact, in France, foreigners participating in political demonstrations face deportation and a 3-year reentry ban.

So a foreigner should not try to tell the French how to reform their country. They’ll have to figure it out themselves. And if you really have to tell the French what reforms to implement, you must do it as gently as possible – not shoot straight from the hip.

On top of that, the French are a very proud, ancient people who are trying to defend their culture in an increasingly globalized, Americanized world. The French cherish their culture and their ways of doing things so much that they even have a state institution – L’Academie Francaise – to regulate the French language. Taylor’s kind of lecture, but especially coming from an American, was not well received in France partly for that reason. National pride is important for many nations, and again, the French are no exception.

And let’s be blunt – by speaking “bluntly” and from the hip, Taylor was impolite. That was a mistake if his goal was to convert the French to capitalism. France is not Germany or the US; shooting from the hip doesn’t work there and won’t earn you many friends, no matter how right you are.

From my experience of dealing with the French people, I know that you have to be very polite in France no matter whom you’re dealing with (unless you’re talking to street hoodlums). You have to speak and behave politely. That means not only giving people their proper titles like Madame and Monsieur, but also telling them the facts in polite words. By my experience, the more polite you are, the higher your chances of succeeding in dealing with the French.

If you’re polite towards them, they’ll reciprocate in 99% of cases. If you behave like a jerk or a shooting-from-the-hip cowboy, expect to be treated accordingly. (Did Taylor think that if he said “You Frenchmen are lazy! You work only 3 hours a day!”, the French will fawn over him and say “Oh, dear Mr Taylor, thank you for opening our eyes and allowing us to see our errors”?)

In short, Go Gently on the French. That’s the way business is done – at least in Gaul. The more polite you are, the higher your chances of succeeding. Extra marks for those foreigners who speak French. (If you don’t speak French, hire a tutor or take classes.)

So how to introduce the French to American-style laissez-faire capitalism?

Reform cannot be imposed or coaxed on them from across the Atlantic. It’ll have to be initiated and fully implemented by the French themselves.

The best and brightest among French students should be selected to attend conservative American colleges and to work for some time in conservative American think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. Then, they should return to France and pass their knowledge – everything they’ve learned – to their fellow Frenchmen/women. They should try to build majority popular consensus for capitalist reform in France: write articles and books, teach at universities and grandes ecoles, convince right-wing politicians to adopt capitalist policies, participate in debates, and do interviews with France’s toughest journalists. They – like any successful salesmen/women – need to be both knowledgeable and good at salesmanship and public relations. They need to know their product well, but also know how to sell it. And they need to do it in a friendly, polite, optimistic manner to pose a stark contrast to the arrogant Hollande administration and the negativist, warlike, impolite, dour Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far left.

In sum, capitalist reform cannot be imposed or coaxed on France from outside by anyone. The French will have to discover the truth themselves. And if reforming their economy, or giving them advice on how to do it – assuming they want such advice – it must be done very politely, as all business is done in France.

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