There’s a stereotype going around that French people “never work.” And you know what? There are indeed some differences in the work culture between France and other countries like the United States. Our work hours are different, our vacation time is different…
So in today’s lesson, let’s get to the truth behind the stereotype, and reconnect with French culture and vocabulary at the same time.
1) French people never work: “les 35 heures”
In 2000, the center-left government (and its Minister of Labor Martine Aubry) pushed les 35 heures : the 35-hour workweek law.
The goal was to give French workers more leisure time, while reducing le chômage (= unemployment.)
On the left, it was often seen as progress for workers’ rights. On the right, it was often seen as weird and counterproductive. But all in all, twenty years later, it seems that the laws didn’t make much of a difference.
Most people will work a 40-hour work week anyway; it’s just that they get paid in les heures supplémentaires (= overtime pay.) Or they’ll have their overtime “refunded” as special vacation days, called un RTT.
Many employees ended up doing the same work as before, but in fewer hours. So it led to more leisure time, but sometimes more stress and burnouts.
Extra resources and vocabulary:
- Le travail à temps partiel / le temps partiel = part-time job
- Article in French on Le Figaro from 2020, about why and how the 35-hour work week didn’t have such an impact after all: Les 35 heures ont 20 ans : deux économistes font le bilan
- Un RTT is short for un jour de RTT (where the acronym means Réduction du Temps de Travail = “work time reduction day.”) It also often happens that an employee has too much work to be able to enjoy its RTT, and they expire annually.
2) French people never work: “les vacances”
Les vacances = the holidays, vacation days
Un jour férié = a public holiday, a national day off, a bank holiday
Faire le pont = “do the bridge” = taking a day-off when a holiday falls on a Thursday or Tuesday, to enjoy a four-day week-end.
There are 11 “jours fériés” in a French year:
- Some of them are national holidays like Le 14-Juillet (“Bastille Day” as foreigners sometimes call it)
- Some of them are Christian holidays like Le lundi de Pâques (= Easter Monday)
French employees are also entitled to (at least) one mandatory day off every week (usually on Sundays.)
Les congés payés = paid vacation days, since 1936. The ephemeral left-wing government le Front Populaire of the time mandated 15 paid vacation days each year for French employees. That number was later increased to 18 days, then 25 days, and now 30 days: our current les cinq semaines de congés payés (= five weeks of paid vacation per year.) These vacation days play a significant role in French culture, actually. They’re a symbol of workers’ rights and well-being.
Les grandes vacances / les vacances d’été = “big holidays” (for school) / summer holidays
- Les juillettistes = people taking their vacations in juillet (July)
- Les aoûtiens = people taking their vacations in août (August)
- “Le chassé-croisé des juillettistes et des aoûtiens” = the weekend when juillettistes come home and aoûtiens drive to their holidays; there’s a lot of traffic on the roads. It’s a trope of French journalism.
In total, French employees do have quite a lot of vacation time, compared to some other countries.
Extra resources and vocabulary:
- Une année sabbatique = a sabbatical (year)
- Liste des jours fériés en France (Wikipedia)
- Les Bronzés (1978) – a very famous French comedy movie about regular French people in holidays
Extra Comme une Français lessons (click to learn more!) :
3) French people never work : “la grève”
Une grève = a strike
Un mouvement social = social protest, social unrest
Une manifestation = a march, a protest
You can’t predict strikes, as it depends on the news and political issues. However, to give you an idea, you can probably expect some sort of strike around every six months: some trains get canceled, the metro gets even more crowded, and you can probably see people protesting in the main streets.
Some French people see it as defending good working conditions. Other French people are annoyed. It’s a controversial topic, and all sides seem to think the other one is in power.
However, one thing is true: French culture has a long history, even a mythology, of strikes and protests. Like:
- Les Gilets Jaunes (= the Yellow Vests movement) recently
- Mai 68 (= the influential May 1968 protests and riots in Paris)
- La Commune de Paris (1871), an ephemeral city-state of Paris, a secession from the newly-founded Third Republic after the disastrous defeat of 1870 against the Prussians
- And obviously, La Révolution française de 1789 that created the first French Republic and had a decisive impact on European history
This kind of cultural images keep people motivated, even these days with the protests against the law on retirement age.
Extra resources and vocabulary:
- Un syndicat = a labor union, such as the influential and combative la CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail)
- Paris Commune (Wikipedia) – This historical episode is both relatively minor and little-known… but also very studied and hugely influential. That’s where the word “le communisme” (communism) comes from, for instance. It’s a complex event with many sides, bloody insurrection, bloody repression, and striking songs about it.
- Chronologie des mouvements sociaux en France – Wikipedia page retracing the many, many social protests in French history
4) French people never work: Work-life balance
All these issues only reflect a French attitude towards work. Basically: quality over quantity.
When they work, French people have a really high productivity! But for better or worse, French society will always fight for good working conditions, and will push for social negotiations to improve them.
French people do respect long lunch breaks and solid leisure times in holidays, including le droit à la déconnexion, the right to be cut off from work emails and notifications when on holidays.
And when it’s late at night and most shops are closed, or when it’s Sunday and you can’t buy a baguette because the baker has a day off, we understand that it’s only the price to pay to live in a society giving better working conditions to employees.
Finally, of course, all these ideas are mostly generalizations. I can’t get into all the pro and cons and history and points of view here.
But for now, keep exploring French culture with me!
Click on the links to keep learning:
- “French” words that French people never use
- French people always complain
- French people never wear bérets
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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