I just listened to a radio interview with a French-born professor who teaches at New York University (NYU). He talked about how people in France view and think about their jobs.
I've always thought that most people in France have an attitude toward jobs and work that is diametrically opposed to the American work ethic. The protestant work ethic is what we used to call it — work is what gives value to your life. In idealistic terms, you could say that it isn't work but family, friends, and individual pursuits that give value to your life in France.
The French republic's motto, framed in revolutionary times more than 200 years ago, is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité — Liberty, Equality, Solidarity. That's the ideal of French society and government. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940 and a Nazi-leaning government was put in place in Vichy, that slogan was changed to Travail, Famille, Patrie — Work, Family, Nation. Coins were minted with that slogan on them. After the war, that less idealistic slogan went by the boards.
When I lived in Paris in the 1970s, I realized my French friends hated their jobs and didn't enjoy the people and the relationships they encountered in the workplace. That was again the opposite of my attitude. I enjoyed work and the people I worked with, back then and also more recently in California. I even enjoyed working for the federal government in Washington 25 years ago, because I worked in a good environment of cooperation and collegiality.
The French professor from NYU added a dimension to my thinking. He pointed out that French children are taught by their parents that hard work is a positive value. French workers apparently attain higher levels of individual productivity at work than their American counterparts. The problem is that management in France is authoritarian rather than cooperative, and employees are not so often valued and promoted within their organizations. They end up resenting having to go to work in the morning. It's just too hierarchical and adversarial, judged in American terms.
Right now much of the talk coming out of the new government in Paris has to do with French work habits, especially overtime work. The Sarkozy slogan is Travailler plus pour gagner plus — Work More to Earn More. We are supposed to believe, I guess, that employees will be free to decide just when they need or want to work a longer week and get paid overtime. Employers will just let them. Just in case that doesn't happen, the Sarkozy people are also doing what they can to encourage employers to permit employees to work overtime.
This is a major battle over the 35-hour work week, which was mandated under a socialist (labor) government back in the 1990s. The theory then was that if employees were permitted to work only 35 hours a week instead of 40, employers would have to hire more people to get the extra work done. It was seen as a way of spreading the work and the wealth around and reducing unemployment, which is still high in France.
As an incentive to encourage overtime work, the Sarkozy government has proposed that all the income earned through overtime work be tax-free for both employee and employer. The employee won't have to declare it as taxable earnings, and the employer won't have to pay employment and social security taxes on it.
Nobody knows what effect such measure will have on unemployment. Instead of hiring an extra worker, whose salary would be taxable, employers can ask current employees to do more work and thus avoid paying what is called charges (for social security benefits) on that money. I think the theory is that the enthusiasm of workers who are happy to work longer hours will spread through the culture and change French attitudes.
Taking away the 35-hour work week would probably provoke major unrest — strikes and demonstrations — in France. Dangling the carrot of tax-free extra income in front of employees is a slick way of accomplishing the desired result, which is lengthening the work week. It is going to be interesting to see how it plays out over the next months and years.