Can France Maintain Its Famous Work-Life Balance?

Originally published on April 28, 2014 4:46 pm

Employees in France are in a league of their own. They work a 35 hours a week. They get six weeks of paid leave, plus generous striking rights.

And in the past few weeks, new rules have been agreed to that allow some employees to literally switch off their email when they leave the office in the evening.

So if you’re in Asia or America and hoping to discuss a business venture with your contact in France after their work day has ended, you’ll just have to call back at a more convenient time. C’est la vie.

It’s all because the French are nothing if not protective of their famous work-life balance. But just how sustainable is that in a world where businesses increasingly work 24 hours a day, seven days a week? The BBC’s Paul Moss sent this report.

Note: This piece can be heard in the Here & Now podcast or with the WBUR mobile app.


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Workers in France are in a league of their own. They have a 35 hour work week, they get six weeks paid leave, plus generous striking rights, and in the past few weeks new rules have been implemented that allow some workers to literally switch off when they leave their office in the evening. So if you're in Asia or the U.S. and want to talk about a business venture with your contact in France after their work day has ended, c'est la vie.

But just how sustainable is that in a world where businesses increasingly work 24 hours a day, seven days a week? The BBC's Paul Moss sent this report.

PAUL MOSS: They serve a tasty looking selection of patisserie at the Shoppe Danon(ph). It's just a typical Parisian neighborhood cafe, irrepressibly French, and so too, you might say, was the topic of conversation here.

I'd come to discuss quality of life, my companions being Jean Louis and Sabine. He works in IT. She's a business consultant. And they're still celebrating an agreement reached by their trade union this month, which will restrict how often they have to respond to work emails or even answer work phone calls out of office hours. There is, they insist, an important principle at stake.

JEAN LOUIS: This agreement will just bring us the clear idea that we may disconnect at a certain moment to stop working a little bit and wait for the next morning to start again.

SABINE: I very often do answer email after 6:00, after 7:00, but it shouldn't become a habit. It's important that sometimes you are not available.

MOSS: At the headquarters of the CGC trade union, everyone seemed in an upbeat mood. It's not the just new agreement they've reached over emails and mobile phone calls. The French Supreme Court this month ruled in favor of another trade union which demanded that shop workers should not be asked to work after 9:00 p.m., and not at all on Sundays. And this is exactly the kind of issue French trade unions should increasingly be fighting on, according to Mary Buaud(ph), one of the CGC's spokeswomen.

MARY BUAUD: It's not money, money, money. We want to go out with family, friends, drink, go out to the discotheque. It's very important for (unintelligible) because when you work hard, hard, hard, you have a lot of stress.

MOSS: You might say it's hardly news to hear that a French trade union is hoping to secure more rights for its members. That is what they do. Except that the context here is changing. France is in serious debt, and with a yawning budget deficit. And as a member of the eurozone, the country's been ordered to clean up its financial act and reform its labor market.

The French government has until the end of this month to come up with its latest plan for how to do this. And as far as some here are concerned, offering new forms of worker protection is precisely what the doctor didn't order.

Gaspard Koenig is head of the free market think tank GenerationLibre. French working habits, he argues, need to become more flexible, not more regulated.

GASPARD KOENIG. GENERATIONLIBRE: There's, of course, a 35 hour week, which is a standard limit per person. And I do think, I do understand that if work contracts had been more flexible, then you give more opportunities for the newcomers and for the outsiders. France used to be the most capitalist country on Earth. And if we were to liberalize the economy, we'd just retake what we originally invented.

MOSS: There's one place where you can go to see France positively showing off whatever capitalist side it does have. La Defense, the modern purpose built financial district in the west of Paris, a citadel of bankers, bond traders and financial service providers with enough skyscrapers to rival Wall Street.

It was 1:00 p.m. when I arrived at the office of AXA Investment Management and the staff canteen was full of people enjoying a proper lunch, three courses, and no apparent hurry. But the company's chief strategist, Franz Wenzel, insisted I shouldn't fall for old stereotypes, that there is actually no great different between the way business is done here and in other countries.

FRANZ WENZEL: France has a fairly intense workday. In the United Kingdom, people tend to have lunch behind or at their screens at their desk. But is productivity really elevated? I seriously doubt about that. France has the right work-life balance.

MOSS: And yet France also has a new prime minister, a man from the Socialist Party who say he will shake things up.

Manuel Valls was appointed last month, and he's already announced cuts to public spending, and a reduction in business taxes, a move that didn't exactly go down well with some of his parliamentary colleagues.

MANUEL VALLS: (French spoken)

MOSS: Despite this opposition, the ruling socialist party is also promising it will remove some worker's rights in an effort to free up the employment market. I asked the party's spokeswoman, Corinne Narassiguin, whether her boss would really see this through.

CORINNE NARASSIGUIN: Change is always difficult. Sometimes this can lead to resistance because we are afraid of what these reforms can bring. But the government is set on making these reforms, because we understand that we have to move forward. We have no choice anyway.

MOSS: I heard a similar vote of confidence from Francois Colone(ph) . He runs his own very successful technology business. But Francois clearly knows there is more to life than work. When I caught up with him, he was setting off on a skiing holiday from the famous Paris railway station Gare de Lyon.

Francois is a hard-nosed businessman. He said he wants French working practicing to be overhauled. And yet, he insists this needn't mean the end of the line for his country's famous joie de vivre.

FRANCOIS COLONE: There are some great things in this country, which hopefully will not change. You know, the lunch break, the French do appreciate to have a good lunch. It may have to cut the number of holidays, but the French are never as good as when the situation is tough. You know, it's the country which wins against Brazil in football or beat the All Blacks when nobody believe it. And I think it's a beautiful country, everything is there. And I don't see this changing.

YOUNG: Hum, he just mentioned lunch. What's lunch? That's businessman Francois Colone ending that report by the BBC's Paul Moss in Paris. So, Jeremy, this is the debate that that Cadillac ad sparked. Remember the guy...



YOUNG: ...with this Cadillac mocking the French who take off in August and don't work as hard as he does. This is that debate.

HOBSON: Well, yeah, the idea that of course you can make more money and be more competitive if you're going to work more than a 35 or 40 hour work week, but do you want to be working all the time? The other thing is, in terms of taking off August, and you and I do not get to take off the month of August or any other month...

YOUNG: Lunch, what's lunch?

HOBSON: Exactly. But I will say, sometimes I have come up with my best work-related ideas while I'm away from the office. So...

YOUNG: It's tough. What do you think? What do you think about the French model? Let us know at You can also tweet us @HereNowRobin.

HOBSON: @JeremyHobson or the show is @HereAndNow.

YOUNG: Would love to hear from you. HERE AND NOW.

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