x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Data puts stereotype of lazy French worker in question

Are the French lazy? It is a question foreigners often ask, and to which they invariably have a mischievously affirmative answer.

People sit in a cafe as they enjoy the sun in Montmartre, Paris. The French have a 35-hour work week introduced in 2000. Fred Dufour / AFP
People sit in a cafe as they enjoy the sun in Montmartre, Paris. The French have a 35-hour work week introduced in 2000. Fred Dufour / AFP

Are the French lazy?

It is a question foreigners often ask, and to which they invariably have a mischievously affirmative answer.

Now, and perhaps more worryingly for a country attempting to break free of persistent economic adversity, the French have started asking it themselves, as hopes for a swift or even medium-term recovery fade.

French consumer confidence fell sharply in May, staying well below its long-term average and lower than economists' forecast, a survey by the national statistics agency Insee showed yesterday.

Insee said its monthly consumer morale index dropped by four points to 79 after losing two points in March, below the long-term average of 100 and lower than an average forecast of 85 in a Reuters poll.

The month of May is partly to blame for the growing debate over French working practices. A coincidence of dates meant there were four national holidays - for Labour Day (May 1), Second World War Victory in Europe Day (May 8), Ascension (May 9) and Whitsun (May 20) - and one day of observance, May 19, the Sunday before Whit Monday.

Each time France has a public holiday on a Thursday, many workers also take the Friday off. To faire le pont - bridge a gap - rather than return to work for one day before the weekend is a fixture of French society. With the celebration of victory in Europe falling this year in a Wednesday, that meant less a bridge, more a viaduct as the working week effectively ended on Tuesday evening, not resuming until the following Monday morning.

It caused the weekly current affairs magazine Le Point to devote a front cover to the same question that forms, when translated, the introduction to this article: "Les Français sont-ils paresseux?"

The magazine discussion led to similar navel-gazing elsewhere, including a long discussion on France 3 television's flagship nightly news bulletin. And the answer to the question - are the French lazy? - produces a mixed reply.

Some of the anecdotal evidence seems to leave little room for serious dispute.

Ted Stanger, an American war correspondent-turned-author living in Paris even wrote a book about it: Sacrées Vacances! Une Obsession Française (Taking Time Off: A Very French Passion). He also wrote a novel, Un Américain en Picardie, about a US businessman who is dumbfounded by working practices and shopfloor militancy he finds when his Texan firm takes over a small Picardy factory.

Stanger once said on French radio that if medals for leisure were awarded at the Olympics, France would win gold every time.

The blurb for one of his books reads: "The French on average only put in 1,250 hours per year of work (compared to 1,500 in America) and retire on average by age 57. In this book, Stanger examines this obsession with leisure. He looks at, in a humorously caustic way, the French love of holidays, free time, four-day weekends and other forms of non-work, and how the society has been shaped by this obsession."

Another author, Jérôme Chartier, who sits on the centre-right opposition benches in the French parliament , urged his compatriots to adopt a fresh attitude to employment in his book Eloge du Travail (In Praise of Work).

Describing the book, the evene.fr website owned by the conservative newspaper Le Figaro said: "France, as everyone knows, has a bad relationship with the ideology of work which, culturally, is associated with 'Tripalium', or the burden of suffering. In this respect, it differs from the culture of those reformed countries where work is, in contrast, seen as a self-fulfilling, a realisation of the individual."

Chartier blames the philosophy on left-wing intellectuals for encouraging the idea that work simply makes bosses rich and is therefore bad.

He advocate protecting "workers, not their jobs", security for those laid off and retraining opportunities but also calls for limits to post-redundancy benefits so workers ultimately accept the need to pursue different career options.

As if to reinforce points made by both authors, Le Point's front cover shows a man wearing a straw hat and shorts, relaxing in a hammock. Its report begins with a line taken from a song by the late French-Caribbean crooner Henri Salvadore: "Work is health; doing nothing keeps it."

Salvador's own life suggests a man who was both hard-working and long-living. His discography is impressive and although his career dipped into a trough in the 1980s and 1990s, he used his spare time to play pétanque, the traditional French version of bowls, to a high standard. He was 90 when he died.

The magazine refers to the various arrangements that encourage the nation in its supposedly work-shy ways: the 35-hour working week introduced by a socialist government in 2000; long holidays; part-time employment; and extra time off for overtime (known as RTT).

Anyone with French acquaintances can offer examples of how this has worked in practice. A recently retired bank worker in La Sarthe in western France said his final year at work was punctuated by nine weeks of holidays thanks to RTT.

When the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, pushed "work more, earn more" policies, with tax inventives for overtime, many workers resisted. Readers of Nice-Matin, a newspaper circulating on the distinctly non-socialist Riviera, have recently voted convincingly in an online poll against the idea of accepting less time off.

To the question, "should the number of national holidays be reduced?", 67 per cent said "non".

Added to this is the network of "special regimes" allowing employees in certain sectors - police and the armed services but also the state rail service, gas and electricity suppliers and even the Paris Opéra - to retire long before their 60th birthdays, typically in their mid-50s.

Le Point presented an array of statistics to support the notion that the French, if not exactly lazy, work a lot less than others.

During the course of a working life, it says, the French employee who is in a job for 42 years with an average working week of 35 hours devotes a total of only 67,000 hours - less than 10 per cent of life expectancy - to work after deductions for statutory time off.

In 1900, people expected to spend 40 per cent of their total lifespan at work.

On these calculations, Americans and British employees spend 10 per cent longer in their lives at work - 74,000 hours - than their French counterparts.

The number of paid holidays taken by the French - averaging 36 days, according to agency Insee - is on a par with Britain and Spain. But French civil servants have an additional eight days off.

Some employment sectors, a diverse range including air traffic controllers, regional administrators and dockers, enjoy privileged arrangements for time off described in Le Point as "absurd".

And absenteeism is reportedly so rife among the 57,000 municipal employees of Paris the city council is described as a "paradise for lazybones".

But having posed its provocative question, the magazine admits true answer is not so straight forward.

It says the figures for lifetime working hours are distorted by the much lower proportion of French in jobs - only 41 per cent of the total population, lower still among the young and those over 55 - than Americans at more than 50 per cent.

"So the French are not lazy but too few of them work," Le Point says, presenting another statistic that the world beyond French frontiers may find surprising but one that is regularly advanced by champions of what the French call their social model: "If we measure gross domestic productivity by hours worked, France is top of the world, which explains why inward investment is high."

So, Jaqueline and Gilles, take the weight off your feet. You may not be work-shy after all, it would seem, just efficient.