Labor Conditions in France: Working Less Is a Full-time Job!

Tell Your Boss to Clock Off!

April 14, 2014By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update 13TH MONTH
Iillustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

All week I’ve been getting messages from readers who live in other countries saying things like, “David, is it true that French people are forbidden to think about work outside of office hours?” “Is it true that you can get arrested in France for working overtime?” “Is it true that the bosses have to give their employees foot massages?” “Tell me again about the rabbits, David,” etc.

The fuss started on April 9 with the publication by the British daily The Guardian of an article proclaiming that the French had “made it illegal to work after 6pm” – in the sense that a new “legally binding labor agreement” requires employees “to switch off their phones after 6pm” lest they be bothered by work-related e-mails.

Over the next two days, this provocative bit of news was bandied about on the Internet, mostly by people checking their Facebook feeds on company time, and had already become as viral as H1N1 before anyone bothered to mention that it was, as we journalism professionals say, a crock. After being vehemently debunked in Slate, the original article was revised (and now includes a notice at the bottom to that effect) to more accurately reflect the facts.

Which are not nearly so provocative. What really happened was that a labor deal (not a law) was signed between two employers’ groups (not the government) and a few unions guaranteeing 11 hours per day of “disconnect time” (i.e., no obligation to answer work-related messages) for certain (not all) workers who are not covered by France’s famous 35-hour work week regulation. The agreement affects a total of about 250,000 people nationwide, who, if my math skills don’t fail me, can still put in 13-hour days.

There is no specified 6pm cutoff time, and no one is actually obliged to turn off their smartphones or laptops, but managers are required to ensure that employees are able to turn off such devices if they want to. Which they don’t, because then they wouldn’t be able to propagate provocative rumors about their working conditions.

Still, it’s easy to see why such a tale would be believable. Unlike any of the countries that have taken a stab at Marxism over the years, France actually comes pretty close to qualifying as a “workers’ paradise.” Thanks to a long series of labor agreements and laws adopted over the past 50 years or so, salaried employees in most French companies get not only a 35-hour week and five weeks of paid vacation per year, but also low-priced, nearly comprehensive health insurance, plus perks like reimbursements for commuting costs and, get this, coupons that can be redeemed to pay for meals and an array of discretionary expenses like vacation travel and movie tickets.

And get this: for all that effort, most French workers receive 13 or, in some cases, 14 months of salary per year. About the only thing they don’t get is fired. It’s very difficult to dismiss permanent employees unless they commit a grievous offense, like calling their spouse to say they’re working late and then actually working late. Or answering an e-mail after 6pm.

Those are the facts. Well, up through “grievous offense,” in any case. But, as regular readers know, I have even less devotion to facts than The Guardian. With that in mind, here’s what a typical workday is like for me…

9:30am I wake up when my boss calls to ask what kind of cake I want for my birthday party later in the week. Making a mental note to sue his ass for phoning me at home, I get up, shower, dress and head for my company’s office-spa complex, where I work as a truffle and caviar taster.

10:45am As I walk in the front door, the staff greeter hands me my welcome glass of Champagne. Noting the goblet’s weight and resonance, I ask him why it’s not crystal. He hands me the employee complaints ledger (Volume XXII) and a Mont Blanc pen, and I leave a scathing note for the purchasing manager. The greeter tells me to keep the pen.

11:00am Arriving at my desk, I find my company-supplied brunch waiting for me. The croissant is a little too warm, so I send it back. It takes three minutes for Catering to bring up another one, during which time I check the company’s dating site to see who I’m assigned to have an affair with this week. It’s Nicole, one of the in-house aromatherapists. I send her an e-mail asking if she’d rather have lunch at Taillevent or La Tour d’Argent, and whether we should put the bill on her expense account or mine.

11:15am The daily grind.

12:30pm At last it’s time to meet Nicole. We can’t get a window table at La Tour d’Argent, so Taillevent it is.

2:30pm After lunch and a 30-minute nap in the company’s courtesy suite at the Ritz, I attend a union meeting, for which we borrow the CEO’s penthouse office. We argue for more than two hours about whether to stage a walkout in solidarity with the sex-toy-testers union, whose members are striking for longer hours and fewer breaks. After we adjourn, I leave a note for the CEO demanding that he stock a better quality of foie gras for the snack cart.

4:45pm More drudgery. Will the day never end?

5:15pm Break time. I check my trust fund, financed by my hourly bonuses.

5:55pm After a little more work and a quick facial in the company anti-aging clinic, I clock off and head for home. Free at last!

6:00pm While I’m waiting for one of the firm’s limos, the bells of a nearby church start ringing the hour. A dozen or so pickpockets stream out of the Métro station across the street and gather on the suede-upholstered public benches along the boulevard. They take out all the cellphones they have stolen during the day and start switching them off.


© 2014 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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