Two sides to the employment coin in France
On an elegant avenue off the Champs- Elysées, a well- dressed woman stops to answer a journalist’s random questions about France’s employee-friendly labour laws.
"There are two Frances," she says.
"One belongs to the civil servants, bank workers and quite a few others enjoying the 35-hour week and time off to compensate for anything above it.
"The other is occupied by people like my daughter who is a self-employed professional working all the hours heaven sends without overtime or compensating leave."
The conversation took place seven years ago as many workers and students were engaged in demonstrations, some of which turned violent, against relatively modest proposed reforms to employment practices.
Dominique de Villepin, then the prime minister motivated by a desire to cut high French youth unemployment, wanted to make it easier for bosses to hire and fire young people. The protests forced a weak president, Jacques Chirac, to abandon the reform and little appears to have changed in the intervening years.
Opposition to Mr Villepin's plan was based on the argument that people just entering the labour market should not be treated less favourably than those established in it and enjoying hard-earned protection.
But is a national reluctance to surrender strong defences against dismissal accompanied, as critics claim, by a national reluctance to work and to be more expensive to employ? The answer is far from clear-cut.
The French magazine Le Point's figures showing the French spending markedly less of their active lives at work than, say, the Americans or British, reveals one side of the coin. Moreover, labour costs in France are undoubtedly high.
Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, put France in fifth place in 2011, including non-member states, with an average pay rate of €34.20 (Dh162.45) per hour, with only Norway, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark ahead.
The comparisons were frequently discussed as the socialist government of François Hollande entered office a year ago to a wave of factory closures and lay-offs. The equivalent hourly cost of labour in Germany, seen as the strong man of Europe, was €30.10 and labour was particularly cheap among the former Communist states of Bulgaria (€3.50), Romania (€4.20, the 2010 rate), Lithuania (€5.50) and Latvia (€5.90).
But there is another side to the coin. Productivity figures tell an entirely different story.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found in 2011 that of 35 western countries, only five - the United States, Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands - returned higher rates than France for GDP earned per hour worked.
Expressed as percentages of the US rate of US$60.2, France attained 95.8 per cent, ahead of Germany's 92.7 per cent.
But the Ireland, on 112.6 per cent, Luxembourg on 129.7 and, emphatically, Norway on 137.8 per cent were alone in exceeding US performance on the basis of this test.
If these statistics offer a surprising counterbalance to the notion of the French as lazy and unproductive, the 35-hour week is another battleground for polarised debate.
To Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right former president who entered office promising to transform the French workplace model but in the end achieved little, and to many employers, it was a cause of unemployment.
Most recent figures put the jobless rate in France at a record 11 per cent high after 23 months of consecutive increases, with unemployment among young people higher still at just under 26 per cent.
Whether the 35-hour week has contributed to these gloomy statistics - the opposite of what ministers intended when it was introduced in 2000 - remains a contentious issue.
Analysis by the national statistical office, Insee, found job creation was not noticeably affected while other studies have produced more negative findings.
But the debate inspired by Le Point is destined to rumble on. The notion of the idle, expensive-to-employ, difficult-to-sack French worker conforms to a stereotype Mr Hollande's government has characterised as "frog-bashing".
There is another anecdote, favoured by French people who have flocked to Britain in search of better-paid jobs in a less rigid working environment.
"I love the more convivial atmosphere in the Anglo-Saxon workplace," says one Frenchwoman who has held similar positions on each side of the English Channel.
"But the culture of coffee breaks, long chats, personal calls or popping out to the shop is unknown in France.
"When we're at work, we work."
Published: May 29, 2013 04:00 AM