Fortune on the French

France's "unproductive labor force" is, in fact, quite productive

The abrasive tire CEO Maurice Taylor made news last week when he lashed out at French workers as “lazy” good-for-nothings.

Fortune goes along with that line in a piece run under this clickbait headline and subhed:

Are the French really that lazy?

A U.S. manufacturing executive ignited a firestorm after calling the French economy uncompetitive due to its unproductive labor force. He has a point.

The point being, according to Fortune, that strong unions and 35-hour workweeks and worker protections = an unproductive labor force. And the magazine also bemoans the fact that Taylor’s broadside prompted the French to defend themselves rather than navel-gaze:

Instead of opening a discussion in the country as to the possible merits of the executive’s views, blind nationalism overtook rational thought, creating an international incident.

Imagine the uproar here if, say, Michelin’s CEO had written something similar to the Commerce Secretary about Americans. Those kinds of firebombs don’t provoke calm discussions, and they’re not meant to.

Particularly when they’re not quite correct. French workers produce nearly as much (and by some measures, more) per hour than Protestant-work-ethic-addled Americans, and they’re more productive than the Germans or the Japanese.

The French work fewer hours—largely because they actually take vacations, the lazy bums!—but the hours they work, they work harder or smarter than Americans do. And they work 40-hour weeks, when you include overtime, Quartz points out.

But Fortune doesn’t get around to mentioning the whole French-are-as-productive-as-we-are thing until the 14th paragraph of its story about its “unproductive labor force”:

But working a lot more doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are more productive than their French counterparts. One way to gauge productivity is to take a nation’s GDP and divide it by the total number of hours its citizens slaved away that year. In 2011, the GDP for each hour worked was $57 in France and $60 in the U.S. Therefore, it appears that while the French work less, they seem to be producing just as much as their U.S. counterparts, on a relative basis.

The French, as a society, have decided to put a little more life in their work-life balance than we do. Their labor laws might need some changing, but so might ours.

And by the way, Michelin is, as France’s industry minister noted in his response to Taylor, 20 times bigger and 35 times more profitable than Taylor’s Titan International.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,