Let’s call time on French‑bashing

There is no truth to the story about a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria

John Lichfield
Sunday 20 April 2014 06:32

The French are angry. Usually, they ignore what the perfidious British write about them. This time they are very angry. According to an absurd story going viral on the internet, French office workers have been given a legal right to ignore work emails and phone calls after 6pm.

There is no truth – not even much suspicion of truth – in this story. It began with a column in The Guardian, whose author has since admitted that she made a mistake. It was taken up, with further embellishments, insulting commentary and no fact-checking, by the Daily Mail. It has since spread rapidly online.

The Mail wrote: “Workers in Socialist France can now ignore telephone calls and emails from their bosses when they are at home. It is all part of a new legal agreement which confirms President François Hollande’s country as arguably the laziest in Europe… The law specifically makes it illegal for workers in the digital and consultancy sectors … to respond to emails or phone calls after 6pm.”

There is no such law. There is no new law at all. There is a convoluted agreement between bosses and unions, which affects 70,000 senior white-collar workers. It allows them to continue to work from home while respecting, in annual terms, the French 35-hour week and the European Union law on minimum rest periods.

I have read the text. There is nothing in the agreement which “specifically makes it illegal” to answer emails or empowers workers to “ignore telephone calls”. It suggest that employees can “disconnect electronic devices” during the EU-decreed rest periods of “11 consecutive hours per day and 35 consecutive hours per week”.

In other words, it allows 13-hour days. There is no mention whatsoever of a 6pm cut-off. Similar agreements already exist in Belgium – and even in hard-working Germany.

Perhaps we should paraphrase the Mail: “This episode is part of a pattern which confirms some British journalism as arguably the laziest in Europe – and the most gratuitously aggressive on anything remotely connected with Europe.”

The French anger is partly explained by the sensitivity of the subject: in other words, France’s allegedly lackadaisical and reluctant working habits; the 35-hour working week; competitiveness and jobs. Many French people would agree that the 35-hour working week, introduced in 1999, was an error. It is not solely responsible for the poor state of the French economy. On the other hand, it has not reduced unemployment by sharing jobs around, as a previous socialist government promised that it would. It has made life fiendishly complicated for some employers, not least the state health service.

All the same, there has been a pattern recently of articles in the US and British media which exaggerate and misrepresent France’s economic problems and attractiveness to foreign investors.

Emma Röhsler is a British lawyer at the Paris office of Herbert Smith Freehills and an expert on British and French employment law. She said: “Some of the reporting on this so‑called 6pm law has been French-bashing at its worst. People here are angry and I understand why. This kind of thing can affect decisions by companies, especially American companies, who are thinking of investing in France.” Ms Röhsler points out that, despite the 35-hour week, the average time worked in France is about 39 hours, compared with 40 hours in Britain. How can that be?

The original 35-hour law has been much amended but, significantly, never abolished by successive right‑wing governments between 2002 and 2012. Unions and employers can, for instance, negotiate exemptions locally to improve competitiveness and save jobs.

The 35-hour week is either a legal quagmire or an opportunity for creative agreements at local level. The agreement which has caused such unjustified merriment in Britain was a response to a French court ruling in 2012.

Some white-collar employers and employees are allowed to implement the 35-hour week loosely with annual or monthly averages and extra rest days. The court said that this was fine but must also take account of the EU directive – from which Britain has an exemption – on minimum daily and weekly “downtime”.

Into this legal morass, enter the Swedes. The city of Gothenburg is considering an experiment to allow some municipal workers to switch to six-hour days, instead of eight. The main Swedish centre-left party is proposing that the whole country introduce a 35-hour week.

In both cases, the argument runs as follows: workers are more productive if their day is shorter. A shorter week can both increase individual output and create more jobs. There may be some truth in this. Daily Mail readers look away now.

French workers, in terms of wealth generated per hour, are among the most productive in the European Union. They come fifth. Germans come seventh. Britons come 12th. All the same, the French experience does not support the argument for a centrally imposed 35-hour week. France has a narrow band of people who do work. It has high unemployment (10 per cent), many perpetual students and a great deal of early retirement.

The business of creating wealth, and paying taxes, falls on a relatively small proportion of the French population. There is a huge state sector. The 35-hour week has further narrowed the work base on which the French economy rests.

This has not proved to be a formula for economic dynamism.

Maybe the idea would flourish better in Sweden. The French experience suggests, however, that working time is something best left to negotiations between workers and employers – of just the kind that did not ban work emails after 6pm.

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