I’ll bet every expat working in France has heard the same thing from a friend or relative during a holiday visit back home: “Wow, so you’re only working 35 hours a week! What a sweet life that must be!”
As you’ve already gathered from things I’ve written here and there, it can indeed be a sweet life to live and work in France. But the misconceptions about how much French people actually work and how productive they are can make you crazy if you focus on them.
Where do the misconceptions begin? Everyone knows about the famous “35-hour law” passed in February of 2000. Its main goal was noble: reduce unemployment, which in France was at 9.8% in the year the law was passed. (It dipped to 7.1% before the recession of 2008 but popped back up to 10.5% late last year.) The idea was that by cutting everyone’s work hours by about ten percent, companies would be forced to hire more people to make up for the loss.
The 35-hour law had a secondary goal, too: improve the quality of work life for French workers. This was meant to be a benefit in addition to the five weeks of paid vacation and 10 official holidays so much appreciated by Americans who get the opportunity to be expat workers in France!
(Even though France is not nearly as Catholic as it once was, many of the official holidays are tied to the church calendar – Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, the Assumption. In a “good” year, these all fall during the work week and add onto the five weeks of vacation. In a “bad” year, they fall during the weekends and aren’t part of the ‘bonus’.)
So how does it work in practice? The reality at my company – and at most of the big companies in France – is that office workers are at their jobs well beyond 35 hours a week.
My own work day started at 7:00 or 7:30 and ended (when I could) by 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening, with perhaps 30 minutes away for lunch. My French colleagues tended to come in later, so their work days ran from perhaps 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 or 8:30 in the evening.
And those were the hours for a “normal” day. During budget season, or when international meetings were convened at headquarters, or when a contract had to be finished, it was not uncommon to see people in the office until 9:00 or 9:30 at night.
How is this possible when the law says you can work only 35 hours a week? Adam Chandler had a good article on the subject in The Atlantic. “As one French economist explained […] ,” Chandler says, “the 35-hour standard isn’t the law of the land, but ‘simply a threshold above which overtime or rest days start to kick in.”
Ah, the wonderful jours de repos, or “rest days”… As I learned soon after our arrival for a second expat assignment in France, office workers must keep careful records of how many days they actually work during the year. Then, through a complex formula that changes from year to year, they are awarded “rest days” above and beyond their vacation entitlement in order to compensate for the extra hours they are probably working every week.
In theory, you can work 50 or 60 hours a week as long as you are compensated with “rest days” that bring your average work week down to 35 hours! In practice, that means my French colleagues and I enjoyed a total of around seven weeks of paid time off every year (plus the 10 official holidays mentioned above). But we worked like crazy all the other weeks we were in the office.
Has the 35-hour law actually worked as advertised in France? The current unemployment figures argue that the answer is “no”, and the law remains constantly controversial and it has been tinkered with almost constantly every year since 2000. Unemployment is a complicated issue in France, and most outsiders would argue it has more to do with how inflexible the country’s work rules are and how hard (nearly impossible) it is to fire French workers when economic circumstances demand it.
(I should point out that everything I’m saying here relates to my own experience as an office worker in a very large French company. The situation is different for hourly workers in manufacturing, for example, where 35 hours is much more “standard” for a work week, and the rules are different, too, in very small businesses.)
So, yes, when we came home for the holidays there was always someone ready to make a snarky remark about how sweet life must be when you only have to work 35 hours a week – and we always tried to explain these nuances that mean we really did work much harder than that. But we did love all that paid time off. This blog – like our love for travelling around the deep heart of France -- is certainly rooted in the amount of time we could take to explore that incredible part of the world!
What about you – what’s been your experience working in France? Have you every bumped up against the 35-hour work week? Please tell us in the comments section -- and please share this post with others by clicking on one of the social-media buttons below!