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Arsenal’s problem? French bureaucracy

It’s ending in jeers for Arsène Wenger as his relationship with the club he began managing in 1996 hits rock bottom. In those twenty two years he has given Arsenal fans like me some glorious highs but many more gruesome lows.

Nothing has been quite as bad as Sunday’s capitulation in the final of the Carabao Cup. It wasn’t just that Arsenal lost 3-0 to Manchester City, more the fact the players were indifferent to the outcome.

In the aftermath Wenger did what he does best, blamed the officials and tried to have us believe his boys were robbed. Mais non, Arsène, it’s the fans who were robbed, dispossessed of hard earned cash out of misguided loyalty to eleven overpaid and underperforming players, who, incidentally, were at it again last night, once more losing 3-0 to City, this time in the Premier League, the boos at the final whistle echoing around a half-empty Emirates stadium.

It’s been said many times in recent years that Wenger is a man in denial, incapable of admitting he has gone from a footballing revolutionary to a relic. If he had any humility he’d resign, but he hasn’t and he won’t. His type don’t, by which I mean the ‘Soixante-huitards’, that self-centred generation of Frenchmen and women who came to the boil in 1968.

Like the rest of that generation Wenger – who turned 18 in 1968 – believes he was born to rule, an entitlement imbued in him by Charles de Gaulle, who endeavoured to expunge the memory of World War Two by drumming into schoolchildren in the early 1960s that they came from the greatest country on earth. How ironic that in the end the 68ers turned on the old general, their youthful arrogance rebelling at his paternal authoritarianism.

Fifty years on and Wenger possess that same paternal, bureaucratic authoritarianism. It’s why he refuses to recognise his shortcomings, let alone resign. It’s a generational failing of French management, be it in football or business, one that was identified as early as 1991 by the Harvard Business Review in an article entitled ‘The Making of a French Manager’.

Acknowledging that in companies such as Michelin, Carrefour and L’Oréal France had some market leaders, the Harvard Business Review nonetheless presciently warned that ‘because of its distinctiveness, the French managerial model may have problems in the new global environment’.

It singled out as a weakness the Gallic over-reliance on ‘cleverness’ in recruiting its managers compared to the Anglo-Saxon approach: ‘They call for more cerebral qualities – an analytical mind, independence, intellectual rigour, an ability to synthesise information,’ said the article. ‘Communication or interpersonal skills are tacked on at the end, if they appear at all.’

Managers therefore tended to be autocrats, trained to neither delegate nor discuss with their subordinates, but rather believe in their own innate superiority. As a plant manager at L’Oréal told the Harvard Business Review: ‘It has become something of a cliché that French managers can solve any problem – assuming they can detect the problem in the first place.’

This blind spot was a result of the rigid structure of French companies and institutions where the président-directeur-général (PDG), ‘decides, executes, and controls company policy…[and] is not answerable to anyone.’ To prove their point, Harvard Business Review quoted one PDG who boasted: ‘I can do what I please with the exception of selling off the company.’

Does this all sound horribly familiar, fellow Arsenal fans? Wenger, who in his early years was dubbed ‘The Professor’ on account of his perceived cerebral qualities, has become The Dictator, a manager who is unaccountable and untouchable.

Wenger was 42 when the Harvard Business Review published its appraisal of the French manager,  the same age as many of the businessmen featured. They were then at their peak before, as Bruno Amable explained in his 2017 book ‘Structural Crisis and Institutional Change in Modern Capitalism’, the French economy began to decline in the mid-1990s. ‘The competitiveness problem of France stemmed from a specialisation in medium-quality goods,’ he wrote.

Arsenal have had their own competitiveness problem for years, stemming from a French manager specialising in mediocrity. Or as José Mourinho put it more succinctly in 2014, a manager who specialises in failure.

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