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In-depth: Are French workers actually lazy?

Sophie Inge · 22 Feb 2013, 15:22

Published: 22 Feb 2013 15:22 GMT+01:00

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In an explosive letter addressed to French industry minister Arnaud Montebourg, and published on Wednesday, CEO of American tyremaker, Maurice Taylor claimed: “The French workforce gets paid high wages but only works three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me ‘that’s the French way!’”

Montebourg himself called the comments ‘extremist’, and union bosses have condemned them as ‘insulting.’  On Friday, Taylor intensified the argument with yet another scathing letter to Montebourg.

But is there any truth in the claim that the French are under-worked and over-paid?

For some in-depth analysis, The Local spoke to a French author who has caused some controversy of her own in recent years.

In 2010, 33-year-old French regional government official Aurélie Boullet – writing under the pseudonym Zoé Shepard – caused uproar when she published the book ‘Absolument Dé-bor-dée!’ (‘Absolutely Snowed Under!’), an ironic account of work in a fictional town hall, based on her own experience.

The Local caught up with her during the week, to gain some perspective on French working habits.

Tell us a little bit about how your own experience has given you an insight into the French work ethic.

“After starting my job”, says Boullet, “I quickly discovered that there wasn’t enough work to do”, that there were “too many people boasting about being ‘snowed under’ when they had nothing to do”, and that the important cases, which were actually of interest were “left to one side”.

Bored stiff, in her own words, Boullet began to vent her frustration in a blog (now shut down), and later, in her book.

Do you think Maurice Taylor’s views are a true representation of the work ethic in France?

“I think the CEO of Titan has a very narrow vision of work in France,” says Boullet.

“He’s certainly wrong when it comes to small businesses. Businessmen must exert themselves to increase and maintain their turnover – indeed, they work very hard in order to do this. In bigger companies, it’s different. Some people work little and/or spend their time in useless meetings.

“So efficient work never actually happens. Some employees don’t end up doing much while a few do the equivalent of many others.”

This so-called ‘meeting-mania’, notes Boullet, is one of France’s greatest problems.

So how would you define the French work ethic?

“There’s no single work ethic in France, but rather there are many,” she says. “It depends on the people directing a company. Some [directors] inspire a real energy, instilling a “quality” approach – with regular assessments to see if the client and the public are satisfied.”

What really bothers you about the French work ethic?

“There is a phenomenon called ‘placardisation,’ in the civil service,” says Boullet.  This is where high-ranking but unproductive employees are transferred into harmless positions, and it is the subject of Boullet’s new book, ‘Ta Carrière est fi-nie’ (‘Your Career is O-ver’).

According to Boullet, there is also a bad habit in France of elected representatives and directors of agencies taking taxpayers’ money and spending it “according to their whims”, such as on foreign trips, a practice that she describes as ‘revolting.’

Your book wasn’t exactly complimentary about French workers. Did you face any problems after you published it?

Story continues below…

“It was a bloody mess!” she recalls. “Soon after I published it, I was denounced by one of my colleagues, who had recognized my writing style.

“Then, the head of HR wanted to have me dismissed, and suspended me before I went in front of a disciplinary council. I was suspended for eight months in all before being allowed to return, though I moved to a different department.”

Did you find others that had the same concerns as you about work habits in the civil service?”

“Absolutely,” says Boullet. “When I was writing my blog, I observed that a large number of people were living through the same thing and couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Then after my book came out, I got a lot of support from many readers who sent me emails and letters encouraging me to continue on in my work,” says Boullet.

Sophie Inge (sophie.inge@thelocal.com)

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