Argument

The Persistent Myth of the Lazy French Worker

The source of France’s malaise has never been labor intransigence. But there are plenty of people who’d like you to think it is.

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A few years ago, both the Financial Times and the Guardian reported, rather uncritically, on a letter that the CEO of the U.S. tire manufacturer Titan International, Maurice Taylor, sent to then-French minister of industry renewal, Arnaud Montebourg. It was not a flattering missive.

In his letter, Taylor had lashed out against French workers and labor unions. He called the workers lazy, the unions foolish, then asked Montebourg, “How stupid do you think we are?” (Montebourg had committed the offense of suggesting that Taylor might be interested in taking over a Goodyear tire factory in northern France.) In essence, the piece suggested that the strong trade unions in France were keeping labor productivity, and therefore economic growth, down. Taylor reported that when he’d spoken with French workers the year before, they’d told him that three hours of work per day was “the French way.”

I’ve always enjoyed reading the rants of American CEOs. Usually the CEO is not hindered by any knowledge of facts about how European economies actually work, beyond a few handpicked anecdotes for the bad news. But in this instance, I must admit that I was a bit surprised to learn that French labor productivity had suddenly taken such a dire turn. When I became a student of the French economy almost 20 years ago, possibly the most remarkable change we’d studied was the steady increase in labor productivity in France during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But maybe Taylor knew something I didn’t. Off I went, therefore, to the OECD Statistics website to find out what had happened.

I compared the GDP per hour worked as a percentage of that of the United States in 2011 for a handful of countries — a means of comparing working productivity across nations, using the U.S. as a baseline, as is common in international comparisons. I also looked at the average total hours worked per year per worker – a means of measuring, in the world of Maurice Taylor, laziness. I included the United Kingdom and the United States as his presumably preferred places for doing business. I included France for the opposite reason, Germany because it is considered the economy that everyone should aspire to become, and the large southern European economies that are, by most accounts, facing the deepest problems today.

French workers, the figures showed, did not suddenly fall prey to Club Med syndrome and take, as Taylor suggests, almost two-thirds of their working day off. The country’s hourly labor productivity is almost on par with the United States. Surprisingly — at least for those who don’t bother to check the facts — the total number of hours worked is also higher than in industrious Germany. Perhaps Taylor stumbled on a group of particularly grumpy French workers, but the aggregate statistics leave little doubt that the French are still grafting away. What was perhaps even more surprising was that the average number of hours worked per year in Italy and Spain – two other countries often treated as lazy pariahs – are higher than, or almost as high, as those in the U.S.; their problem, these numbers suggest, is labor productivity, not laziness. And that puts the ball in the court of government (think education) and management (think capital investment and technology).

The myths surrounding French labor have circulated with special intensity, in France and abroad, since the French government recently proposed reforms to the country’s labor laws. These ideas have mostly served to highlight that there are many ways to be wrong about why a country’s economy is struggling.

It is true that the recent furor in France over labor law reform highlights a couple of unpleasant truths about the country — but very few have anything to do with French workers, per se.

The new law – which has since been watered down since it was first introduced — takes aim at some of the French left’s most precious holy cows, introducing, among other things, a rather dramatic expansion of what constitutes a “normal” working week to 46 hours, but with rather generous compensation arrangements from the 36th hour onward and a redefinition of what unions are allowed to do in the case of disagreements and strikes. In short, French labor law, if the proposal is approved, would look a lot like it does in Germany, the country that everyone in the eurozone is supposed to emulate — no socialist paradise, but no ruthless capitalist rat race either.

Not surprisingly, much of the French public has branded the law, or large parts of it at least, an expression of a broader neo-liberal project this Socialist government is trying to force down French throats on behalf of the country’s economically powerful. Although the unions have been relatively moderate in their judgment — according to le Huffington Post, they see a few good things in the law but on the whole wish to see a lot of amendments and retractions — French employers are ritually foaming at the mouth, while every other possible group that could be affected, from student groups, to the militant left, to the anti-globalization National Front party, have voiced their concerns.

To make matters worse, the law was introduced without much discussion with the trade unions that represent those affected. Instead of taking the time to bring constituencies on board and then pass a version that has broad agreement, the government wrote the law and sent it to the Assemblée for approval — and in case things don’t work out through the standard channels, the government has made it clear that it might enforce the law without a vote, as if it were dealing with a state of emergency. The result is that much of the country has taken up the Gallic ritual of “social mobilization” — in other words, beware, traveler, when going around France by train or plane in the near future, because your pilots and conductors might not have reported to work.

This is not to be flippant about the proposal. These things are important. But it is crucial, however, not to lose track of the important point here: None of it will matter very much. Sure, France could perhaps do with a little more flexicurity here and there, which the law is introducing, and there are some relics among the current set of labor laws that make life comfortable for some groups of workers while doing the opposite for others. But the problem with France does not lie on the supply side of the labor market.

In raising the stakes over the labor law proposal, the country has fallen for the same myths that led Maurice Taylor to open his tire factory somewhere else. French growth and unemployment do not, did not, and never have depended on more flexible labor. The problem with France is simple: It is in a monetary union with Germany – a much stronger and better-organized economy, where workers are properly trained, employers and unions talk to each other, management and employees work together, and finance takes a strategic interest in what companies are doing – and therefore pays a high cost in no longer being able to control the main levers of economic adjustment, from interest rates via exchange rates to fiscal policy. There are a few ways out of this conundrum: Either France can leave the eurozone, or Germany can choose between raising its domestic demand drastically or abandoning the euro, so its real exchange rate can appreciate and leave others more breathing room. Labor market reforms have very little to do with any of this.

Why, then, so much drama over the labor law? Because many of the players involved have much to gain from all the fuss. The law has been the starting gun for grand maneuvers on the left in preparation for the presidential elections, which will take place in a little more than a year. President Francois Hollande is, to put it gently, not very popular: For the time being he is keeping his head under the parapet on this law, fully aware that such a move to the center would lose him votes on the left without necessarily picking him up much on the right. The proposed law, however, is a perfect opportunity for some major players in Hollande’s Socialist Party to sharpen their profile with the party base. It is not a coincidence that Martine Aubry, the previous minister of labor and of social affairs in the 1990s, who introduced the 35-hour week, is among the law’s most vocal opponents. She may have good, substantive reasons for her problems with the proposal. (It is important to keep in mind that her law introducing the 35-hour week was hardly a success: The actual working time in France went up after the introduction of the law.) There is also little doubt that her ambitions to run for president, as she did in 2011, when she lost to Hollande, have not been tempered, and that this is too good an occasion to ignore.

And so French politics will, rather dramatically, fill its time discussing something that doesn’t matter, ignoring the real causes of French malaise that are much more fundamental. In many ways, the French politicians and the Brussels policymakers as well as the economists who egg them on remind me of the proverbial drunk who is looking for his keys under the light by the lamppost. He did not get home safely.

Portions of this article have previously appeared on the London School of Economics’s EUROPP blog.

Photo credit: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Hancké is an associate professor of political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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