What Crazy French Labor Unions Actually Get Right

In France: forbidden after 9pm (buying it that is).

In France: forbidden after 9pm (buying it that is).

I have always been a firm disbeliever in the stereotype that the French are slouches and lazy-pants and don’t like to work. Despite the shortest work-weeks and the longest vacations—and the comatose month of August—I have defended their (miraculous) productivity. Despite even this latest piece of seemingly work-averse news, a decision by a French court forbidding a big Sephora store from ever staying open after 9pm, I will continue to defend the idea that the French are getting something right when it comes to their philosophy about work. Even if, admittedly, it’s getting harder.

The appeals court said Sephora breached labor regulations by staying open until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends at its big store on the Champs-Elysées. This decision is actually just the latest in a series of verdicts that have restricted the opening hours of stores like the Galeries Lafayette and Monoprix (France’s Target). Anything between 9pm and 6am is considered night work in France, and it is actually illegal to keep a business open—and thus compel employees to work—after 9pm. The way businesses have done it is by trying to fit into one of a very few possible exemptions like, for example, if staying open is necessary for “a continuity of economic activity”. In other words, if the nature of the business depends on night work in order to be viable.

Evidently, the court decided selling lipstick and perfume after 9pm is not necessary for the viability of Sephora (which is owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH). But the court’s judgment is not just about that. It’s actually more about the idea that selling more cosmetics after a certain hour is never necessary. The decision is about a much deeper, core philosophy that more is not always better. That at some point the marginal amount more (of stuff sold and money earned) does not produce any benefit other than the material one. And—this is the essence of the verdict—profit for profit’s sake is not what France is about.

A Sephora employee crying in reaction to the court's decision to forbid work after 9pm.

A Sephora employee crying in reaction to the court’s decision to forbid work after 9pm.

Basically, it’s a decision about a social good versus a social bad, and what’s bad here is the liberty of a business (and incidentally several hundred employees) to earn more money. Or so most Americans would probably see it.

This, in fact, is where most Americans, as left-leaning and supportive of regulating markets as they may be, raise an eyebrow: who is the government to say that not working nights is a social good? What if I wanna work at nights? (Night work is often paid up to 20% or 30% more in France, precisely because it’s considered pénible or difficult). The courts in France are essentially saying that it’s not a choice it’s healthy for you to make. The lure of money is fundamentally going to compel you to make decisions you shouldn’t even be faced with the temptation of making. Basically, it would be coercion—because how could you say no? So we’ll ban the temptation. Voilà, now go enjoy your leisure.

A poster in support of laws forbidding stores from opening on Sundays.

A poster in support of laws forbidding stores from opening on Sundays.

The decision is a defeat for any employees who enjoyed the night-work pay, and for any businesses hoping to extend their profit margin. It is a victory for France’s big labor unions, who collectively sued the store. But it’s also a victory for a whole way of thinking about work in France, the idea that the freedom of businesses to earn a marginal Euro more comes directly at the cost of the employees’ right not to work. And especially their right not be compelled to work during a time, in the evenings, that in thriving, fulfilling lives—so the thinking goes—ought to be dedicated to family time, resting, and to pleasure, to all those personal pursuits that enrich the social fabric and are, incidentally, the whole point of…living.

Which, if you think about it like that, is not totally crazy. What could seem like basic anti-capitalist regulation and heavy-handed judicial over-reach—especially given France’s current economy and soaring unemployment rates—doesn’t seem quite as crazy when you think about just what that social “good” is that French judges seem so eager to protect. At the heart of their thinking is this idea: that the essence of life—the good life—is not, above all else, work.

The Good Life ≠ Work. Radical, huh?

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