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.

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“Partners Do Not Spy on Each Other”

Top Secret Spy Letterpress Wedding Invitation

Nothing tests a relationship more than…spying.

Things between France and the United States were already a little tense lately. In free-trade talks that took place between the U.S. and Europe a few weeks ago, France had insisted on excluding its culture industry. It prompted collective eyeball-rolling, and not just in the US delegation—many European countries were also opposed to the idea that France should be able to carve out its own unique little clause of exceptionalism. But (as always) the real confrontation was with the United States, since the real motive of the clause was to protect the French market from too many American blockbusters.

France won that confrontation with the U.S.—or, at least, won the right to preserve a French exception. It’s the U.S. that actually came out with the upper hand. As has often been the case with French economic and trade policy, it makes for bad PR. Imposing that kind of non-negotiable condition, threatening to veto any agreement if France wasn’t given a guarantee, is hardly fair-play in the relationship handbook. It’s my way or no way, is not a great way to start off “talks”, and although the reasons for the exception are certainly defendable (and some big Hollywood players even defended them), it reinforced France’s image as too-often protectionist, with an over-developed sense of its cultural entitlement. It was hard to find much political support for the tactic and overall it wasn’t great diplomacy.

And then it turns out the United States has been spying on France. Which is really bad diplomacy. At best, it’s terribly poor form, at worst, it’s a diplomatic incident that could actually threaten to derail the ongoing trans-atlantic free-trade talks. Either way, in the Franco-American couple, suddenly France has the upper hand again! “Partners do not spy on each other,” said Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner–that’s a pretty basic rule in the relationship handbook, too. President Hollande has had quite sharp words as well, demanding an explanation, and this time no one’s questioning France’s entitlement.

The French far left has been prompt–as always!–to respond to what looks to them like yet another American abuse of power, by suggesting that France go even further than outrage. The Green Party called on Mr. Hollande to grant the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, political asylum, saying that “it would allow France to remind the world that it intends to protect every whistleblower, regardless of his or her nationality.” Which, unpacked, actually means the following: “It would allow France to remind those arrogant, boorish Americans that despite their economic weight and their so-called special security concerns that allegedly justify all sorts of offensive measures, France isn’t going to take it lying down! France takes particular pride in human rights, which – don’t forget! – were created in France.” Or something like that.

The American defense so far has been to imply that, well, everybody spies. It’s just that the U.S. got busted (and that the scale of the spying is monumental). It’s like someone suddenly saying out loud what it looks like the United States has been thinking to itself all along: that we trust our friends, but not as much as we trust what we overhear our friends saying. Not what you want to hear from a partner. The National Security Agency can cite all sorts of terrorism and security concerns, but what this all uncomfortably looks like is an American sense of exceptionalism. An entitlement to do things our way, to take care of business however it needs to be taken care of, to assume that our security interests take precendence over pretty much anyone else’s rights.

“It’s an act of indescribable hostility!” raged the Fench Justice Minister, Christine Taubira. “This scandal reveals that even five years after the departure of Bush, America still poses as the supreme leader of the world,” denounced a conservative French lawmaker. Arrogant, heavy-handed, offensive, not to mention illegal: this spying affair has reinforced the United States’ reputation for self-righteousness and its own sense of entitlement. The French may be unreasonably protectionist, but the Americans are unbelievably presumptuous.

And when it comes to negotiating, what’s protecting a few hundred low-budget French movies compared to…stealing hundreds of millions of pieces of private data?