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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If the French Are Among World’s Most Productive People Then Explain August

"Paris in August": it's even a film (and a novel).

“Paris in August”: it’s even a film (and a novel).

There are many paradoxes in France, the most famous of which is probably the incredibly high ratio of patisseries and steak tartare to slim French people with no more heart disease than anyone else. Why aren’t the French fat and dying young? That particular French Paradox has engendered a whole industry of envy and literature. Less well-known but, frankly, even more confounding, is the August Paradox.

Contrary to national stereotypes, the French are actually not total flâneurs. Far from it. (In fact it’s a stereotype that can get even the most delightful French journalists all worked up). You may recall the highly-tweeted episode this winter, when the American C.E.O. of the tire company Titan International, Maurice Taylor, lashed out at workers and unions in France saying French workers just sit around talking a lot and taking long lunch breaks. Turns out that in citing that national stereotype, Taylor was just reinforcing another national stereotype—of Americans as boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

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Maurice Taylor, boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

Recent (and less recent) studies show that not only are French workers more productive than German workers (good to know these days when Germany is allegedly the labor model to which the rest of Europe should aspire), but they’re only marginally less productive than American workers. And American workers actually work 23% more hours than the French (who actually work more hours than the Germans). Mr. Taylor is free to think and say what he wants, and to be honest, he’s probably not the only one thinking that, but the statistical reality is that France, despite the image it projects, is the fifth biggest economy in the world. And with a population that is 20 percent of the United States population.

And with the month of August.

Now let me explain August in Paris. The city is a ghost town (and for those of you familiar with August in Paris, let me know if you think this summer’s ghostlier than others). You can cross the boulevard without looking, and ride a Vélib bicycle the wrong way up a one way street, because even if there is a car coming, there is a sense of complicity among the few warm bodies still hanging around this joint, something like “You too, eh? Here, let me give you a wide berth and hang in there, man.” Come September, that car will honk angrily and the driver will spit at you.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

More seriously, the city is at a commercial standstill. For most of the merchants still open last week, Friday or Saturday was their last day of business before shuttering up for three weeks (although a few, economic crisis oblige, are leaving for just two weeks). Market stands were hawking at half-price whatever limp produce they had left, and restaurateurs were serving truncated menus with only half their normal dishes in order to empty out the larders. Eyes were sparkling, waiters practically jigging, and you could sense it wasn’t the night to linger over that rest of the bottle of wine. As of Sunday, in every street, metal shutters were drawn over storefronts with the telltale piece of paper taped in the middle, announcing the dates of departure and return. There was even the occasional emoticon.

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Have you noticed that so many of the Vélibs (Paris’s free public bicycles) seem to be missing or broken or have flat tires? It’s August and everyone’s working at half-staff, Vélib maintenance included. In fact the only maintenance workers on duty are the métro staffers, because in August, since no one—pretty much literally—is around riding public transportation, that’s when they shutter whole lines for several weeks. Have you ever had a medical emergency in Paris in August? Don’t. I had a scheduled surgery a few years ago in the summer, on the last week this chief surgeon in a public hospital was taking appointments: the first week of June.

Small businesses will shut down entirely and the whole staff will take leave at the same time—because there aren’t any clients around to do business. In large companies, the executive offices will be empty, a skeletal staff will stick around enjoying the absence of phone calls and emails, and sometimes company cafeterias will just close. I worked for many years at a 24-hour international news network, a French-style CNN, and yet every summer, just like the rest of French media, the bosses’ offices would empty, the number of news bulletins would shrink, shows would be suspended until fall. As though the rest of the world’s news went on holiday in August like it does in France, where French newspapers run light summer series and reduce their news pages since, well, there’s really no news (N.B: this week’s headline is the revolt of angry egg producers who are smashing their stocks because of low prices. Believe it or not, this is interesting, so come back here for more on this shortly).

All I can say, unlike Maurice Taylor, is bravo. Although I, too, find French unions often dogmatic, and I actually feel quite torn about the August Paradox. I find the August ritual freakishly normative, and alienating for people who don’t have the option to leave (I could plan to be out of town if I chose to). I also find it really annoying when metro stations are closed, when my boulangerie is closed, when all the damn dry cleaners are on holiday (who’s got office clothes to wash?), when my French colleagues didn’t seem to think that there was a credibility issue for a network allegedly covering international news to scale down to a “summer news schedule.” How can any industry, let alone a whole economy, be globally competitive when three months of the year feel like write-offs (June is counting down, July is wrapping things up, and August is a black-out)?

Like so much about French culture, August is deeply resistant. And yet like so many other French rituals, August seems, paradoxically, to be highly functional. The August paralysis, this highly-protected custom of total shutdown, doesn’t seem to have made France the country of sclerotic inefficiency that Maurice Taylor claims. So bravo, because if you can take the most significant amount of vacation of any country in the world and still be more productive than the Germans, well, then you’re getting something right.