In-depth: Are French workers actually lazy?

This week, American CEO Maurice Taylor caused a furore by suggesting French workers were lazy. But could there be a grain of truth in what he said? The Local turns to ‘work ethic’ expert Aurélie Boullet (alias Zoé Shepard) to find out.

In-depth: Are French workers actually lazy?
File photo: Victor1558/Flickr

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?

“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.

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How the world views France and the French (through Google)

What does Google's autocomplete function tell us about what the world thinks of France?

How the world views France and the French (through Google)
Photo: Fdcomite/flickr

The French, perhaps more than most, are always eager to know what the world thinks of them and their country.

And all this can be revealed, at least somewhat, by Google's autocomplete function. For example, what do you think would come up if you type into the search engine: Why are the French so…… 

We've taken a look at some of the top results. Granted it may not be the most scientifically reliable but it does give us a good idea of foreigners' preconceptions of the French.

Why are the French ALWAYS ON STRIKE? 

As it happens, the French aren’t the most common strikers in the world, indeed far from it. Various statistical comparative websites regularly rank countries like South Africa, Canada, Spain and Denmark above France in terms of days lost due to strikes.

Although figures change each year. So their reputation appears unfair. Unless you have tried to get to the airport in Paris during a strike. You won't forget that.


Why do the French EAT SNAILS? 

They are considered a delicacy in France and have been since the Romans introduced them when Caesar invaded Gaul, 58 or so years before the birth of Christ.

But they don't have them for breakfast every morning. Most who come to France will never get sight of a snail at all. The French are known for having a few dishes that others might find hard to stomach. Rabbit, kidneys and tripe, cow brain are all common here.


Why are the French so MISERABLE? 

Of course they are not all miserable, but there may be something in this one. Lots of recent studies have confirmed the French, despite having a high standard of living and good healthcare, are “trapped in a general malaise”. 

BVA-Gallup International survey in 2011 found that despite their relatively high standard of living, the French were the most pessimistic people in the world. 

The suicide rate is much higher than the European average. Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, told The Local it may be tied to the French education system, which is too rigid and sets them up to fail.




No one can doubt this. Paris and London might be in dispute over which is the most visited but as a country, France is the undisputed most popular tourist destination in the world.

The annual visitor numbers usually top 80 million. Why? Just take a look around from Paris to the Pyrenees; Brittany to the Alps. Then there's the culture, the history, the prime location in Europe and of course, the food.


Why are the French so WEAK? 

Presumably this stems from the country’s World War II surrender to Nazi Germany, which even the French don’t consider as their finest hour. Then there was there sensible decision not to help invade Iraq.

France has one of the leading military powers in Europe, hence its intervention in Mali and the Central African Republic. France also has exercised a softer power by establishing hundreds of cultural institutes around the globe.

Why do the French HATE THE US? 

A strange one thrown up Google, that suggests Americans are confused why the French don't toe the line like the Brits. Or perhaps they are perplexed by their harsh treatment by locals on a trip to Paris.

The truth is, the French don’t hate Americans. They weren’t crazy about George W. Bush and his wars, but they seem to like Barack Obama well enough. And Parisians aren’t all bad, you just have to get through their outer, protective shell.


Why is Paris so ROMANTIC? 

There’s not been enough research done on this, but it’s a place that is mysterious, attractive, charming and luxurious. How could you not be seduced by a walk along the Seine, through the Marais or by Canal St Martin. That's why thousands come for Valentine's Day.

If Paris were a person most people would be swooning. The place also has a river of hormones running beneath it.


Why are the French so THIN? 

Firstly it's important to point out that some French people do get fat, especially outside Paris. However France does indeed have a low obesity rate compared to the rest of Europe.

And though France has all kinds of rich desserts, cheeses and other fat-filled food, the French consume with moderation. They generally eat smaller portions and save the rich, heavy stuff for special occasions.


Why do Frenchmen SMELL? 

This reputation has persisted for a long time and is bolstered by surveys such as one in 2012 found that 20 percent of the population showers every other day.

The poll also said 3.5 percent of the population, who may be ruining the country’s cleanliness reputation, only bathe once a week. And horror stories of sweaty Paris Metro carriages in the summer also don't help. Pooh la la.

Why is France so EXPENSIVE? 

Perhaps this is based on experiences of Paris and perhaps the wealthy Riviera. While it’s not as bad as New York, London or Oslo, the French capital is not cheap.

With costs of €2,500 a month for an 85 square metre apartment in Paris and €7 for a pack of Marlboros and up to €10 for a pint of beer you’ll need some means to get by here. Outside the capital, things do get cheaper, much cheaper.


Pourquoi les Francais… 

And what about French people's own perception of themselves? What does Google have to tell us about that? Well two of the most common searches are: “Why are the French rubbish at speaking English” and “Why are French people such pessimists”, suggesting there is a fair amount of soul searching going on.

And as for the poor English skills, we've had a go at answering that exact question here