Why The French Are Fighting Over Work Hours, NYer.com, October 3, 2013
It’s telling that in France, where several stores are fighting an order requiring them to close on Sundays, retail employees showed up at work last month wearing T-shirts that read, “YES WEEK END.” It was a play on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, and a symbol of the fact that some in France—where shops have been barred from opening on Sundays, with some exceptions, since 1906—have lately been eyeing a more American approach to work.
In September, a French tribunal de commerce said that two big home-improvement stores, Castorama and Leroy Merlin, would face daily fines of a hundred and twenty thousand euros per store (about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars) if they continue to operate on Sunday. The retailers have said they will open despite the fines, the result of a lawsuit. People in France like to work on home improvement on Sundays, which makes it one of the busiest days for do-it-yourself stores, accounting for between fifteen and twenty per cent of their sales. Closing on Sunday could jeopardize the jobs of some twelve hundred employees, according to the Fédération des Magasins de Bricolage, which translates, roughly, as the Federation of Do-It-Yourself Stores.
“I really don’t understand,” said one customer, quoted in the Catholic daily La Croix. “If everyone has agreed to work, why can’t you open the store?”
For an American coming from the world of 24/7 capitalism, where the market and individual freedom are hallowed values, the French approach to labor seems upside down. Here is a country with a 10.5 per cent unemployment rate, mired in a prolonged recession and desperate for growth, whose national debt has spiraled from seventy-three per cent of G.D.P. to more than a hundred per cent since the recession began—and it’s preventing businesses from remaining open and keeping people who want to work from doing so? But before rolling our eyes at the ideological rigidity of the French government, it is perhaps worthwhile to examine why the French—and other Europeans—might look at this issue so differently.
Stores in Germany—which has the strongest economy in Europe—are closed on Sunday, with even fewer exceptions than in France. “The Sunday day of rest enjoys consensus in Germany among unions, employees, consumers, and business owners,” Werner Zettelmeier, the research director of Paris’s Center for Information and Research on Contemporary Germany, wrote in yesterday’s La Croix. “Any politician who proposed opening stores on Sunday would risk his or her career.”
While there are clear economic advantages to staying open on Sunday, each society has a legitimate choice to make between money and leisure, the French economists Patrick Artus, Pierre Cahuc, and André Zylberberg argue in the most extensive French study of the Sunday-work issue. Their hundred-and-thirty-eight-page report, “Temps de Travail, Revenu et Emploi” (Work Time, Revenue, and Employment), published in 2007, offers a sweeping historical and cross-cultural examination.
Back in the ancien régime, the French worked quite a bit less than they do today, with some hundred and sixty-four holidays during the year; that is, they spent forty-five per cent of the year not working. This was partly because most people were farmers, and the seasonal nature of the work and the lack of electricity restricted how much labor was possible. During the industrial revolution, work hours increased considerably, in the soul-crushing fashion described by Dickens and Zola.
For years, there was nothing particularly leisurely about the French compared to others: in the nineteen-fifties, the average Frenchman worked nearly twenty-two hundred hours a year—three hundred more than his American counterpart, who worked about nineteen hundred hours. The gradual reduction of working time was considered one of the great achievements of the era following the Second World War. It declined virtually everywhere, including in the U.S. By 1980, Germany, France, and the United States converged at about seventeen hundred hours.
Then, something changed. Most European countries continued reducing work hours while, in the U.S., working hours crept back up. Today, Americans work just under eighteen hundred hours per year, compared with fifteen hundred hours for the French.
What happened? In the eighties, the U.S. and Europe began moving in opposite directions. Europe consolidated its generous welfare state, and the U.S., under Ronald Reagan, began dismantling its own in the name of making its economy more competitive. Both approaches achieved their aims.
Today, the average disposable household income is thirty-four per cent higher in the U.S. than in France, according to the O.E.C.D., and Americans, on average, report a higher level of life satisfaction; the French, along with having three hundred more hours of leisure time, enjoy a stronger social support network and a much better work-life balance than Americans (not to mention better bread, cheese, and wine). All this translates into a quality of life that is at least as good as—if not better than—that of Americans. Adding to that, French workers have protections and guarantees that went by the wayside a generation ago in the United States. The French approach to labor might be less productive, from a purely economic point of view, but it has its benefits. Closing Home Depot on Sundays might seem like a serious abridgement of freedom to Americans, but many Europeans see it differently.
“The well-being of each of us is not independent of what others do,” Artus, Cahuc, and Zylberberg wrote. “The value of our free time depends on the possibility of spending it with one’s family and friends and the ability to share that time with others.” In other words, the value of almost no one working on Sunday is that it forces families—or friends—to do things together.
This isn’t as trivial as it may seem, on first glance; social scientists are increasingly finding links between family time and well-being. A number of studies in the U.S. show that children who have dinner regularly with their families do better in school and are less likely to get into trouble. Families that rarely eat together see higher average rates of obesity, drinking, and drug use among teenagers, and more teen pregnancy. The entrenchment of 24/7 capitalism in the U.S.—which has forced many parents to work late hours, or hold down multiple jobs—has gone hand in hand with various negative social trends: rising divorce rates, child obesity, drug use, teen pregnancy.
Still, the French showdown may be a sign that the French system is in serious need of revision. “The French labor system is based on the flawed assumption that if everyone worked fewer hours, there would be more jobs to go around,” Zylberberg, an economist at the University of Paris I, told me. “It’s based on the idea that the job market is a zero-sum game in which the more one person works, the less is left for others. That’s simply wrong.” In 2000, France passed a law instituting a thirty-five-hour work week; since then, the number of hours has indeed gone down—but unemployment has gone up. Furthermore, Zylberberg said, his research shows that “in countries where businesses were free to stay open on Sundays or evenings, the retail sectors grew by three to ten per cent, which is not negligible.”
Zylberberg and other economists also point to France’s generous pension system as a problem. France recently pushed its retirement age from sixty to sixty-two; there is already pressure on the left to move it back to sixty. With people increasingly living into their eighties and nineties, a low birth rate, and shrinking numbers of workers, the math clearly doesn’t add up. “The French model is not sustainable,” Zylberberg said.
With unemployment rising in France, public opinion has gradually shifted on this and similar issues. In the mid-aughts, fifty-seven per cent of French people said they would prefer to have more leisure time than more money. Today, the percentage of those saying that they would give up more leisure for more money is growing, especially among the young. Perhaps that’s one reason that some of the people who are protesting the store closures include workers themselves, who, on Sundays, would prefer the cash to leisure time.
The government of François Hollande is working this week to try to avoid a head-on collision with the retail stores. Zylberberg and his colleagues have a clever suggestion for the government: leave it up to mayors. This would facilitate a wonderful natural experiment in which the French could compare the outcome in cities that close their shops with the result in those that don’t. Leaving the decision to mayors would get the national government out of the uncomfortable position of having to choose between unions and big retail businesses. But that would run against the grain of France’s republican tradition, which is decidedly centralized, and based on the notion that we are in it together—whether we like it or not.
Photograph by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty.