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ANALYSIS: Are traditional French work values on the way out?

The Local France
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ANALYSIS: Are traditional French work values on the way out?
Illustration photo: AFP

The French workplace has long enjoyed a reputation for being generous and relaxed towards its workers, but as a major court case into employee suicides concludes, we ask whether that is really the case any more.


French courts are set to rule on whether the former bosses of France Telecom are guilty of "moral harassment" after a wave of employee suicides rocked the company - and country - a decade ago. 
The ruling today might have been ten years in the making but when the suicides first took place they caused much soul-searching about workplace culture in France. 
The deaths, which took place between 2008 and 2009, occurred at a time when many big French companies were coming under pressure to be more competitive. 
Seven former France Telecom bosses, including former CEO Didier Lombard and the former head of human resources Olivier Barberot, are accused of putting in place a system of "institutional harassment" aimed at forcing workers to resign.
But is this tragic case linked to wider changes taking place in French working culture, or just a one off?
Why schools are to blame for the French being so glumPhoto: AFP
"I would say that for France Telecom, it was a bit extreme case of a company moving from a public service logic with a status of public-private partnership to a hyper-competitive market logic in hyper-growth markets (internet, mobile), with a management team opting voluntarily for a radical change strategy," Pierre-Yves Sanséau, Professor of Human Resourse Management at Grenoble School of Management (Grenoble École de Management), told The Local. 
"The managerial logic became very aggressive as they wanted rapid change forced and imposed on staff mostly working under 'public official' status, leading to the formidable shock that we are talking about," he added.
In general Sanséau believes workplace culture in France is changing, albeit slowly.
This partly down to the fact that many young French people working in competitive fields spend time working abroad early on in their careers, said Sanséau.
However workplace culture cannot change too quickly in France, he added, because "the values of French workplace culture are protected and the French will fight to protect them."
France is know for having a more human approach to work, with working hours traditionally not as long as in other countries, and this attitude is reflected in the generous benefits people receive when they are unemployed. 
The French are used to benefits and believe they should be generous, especially compared to countries like the US, he said, adding that this is the case even though "the country cannot afford the current benefits system". 
Hugues Poissonnier, also an academic at the Grenoble School of Management, said that the culture at France Telecom changed "too quickly, impacting employees more". 
"It is an extreme example and it is difficult to talk about 'French workplace culture' as one thing," he said. "You see different cultures in different kinds of companies."
However, like his colleague, Poissonnier believes that French workplace culture is being slowly eroded, giving the gradual disappearance of the famous two-hour lunch break as an example.
"This was a tradition very specific to France but over time emphasis has been placed on what managers believe to be more productive which is working more rather than valuing the bonds that are created between colleagues when they eat and spend time together away from their desks.
Decoding the French: Are they really a nation of pessimists?Photo: Luis Jorn/Flickr
"Long lunches are now seen as a waste of time but they have many benefits, including energising workers half way through the day.
This is one of the reasons the younger generation are less engaged with their work life, he said. 
Pessimism in the workplace
Another reason for the decreasing engagement in the workplace is a lack of loyalty shown by companies towards their employees, Possonnier said. 
"As companies put more pressure on employees and value things like lunch breaks less, demonstrating less loyalty to the people who work for them, employees in turn feel less loyal to the company. 
"Humans need a purpose and French people tend to find this outside of the workplace," said Poissonnier. 
France has previously been rated the second best place to work in Europe and despite French workers generally falling in the top three EU countries for least hours worked that doesn't mean that productivity is low. 
In fact, French productivity (GDP per hour worked) is one of the highest in Europe. 
Nevertheless, the French cling to the idea that it is a "painful curse", the academics explained previously in an article in The Conversation.
The article explains that there are many factors at play when it comes to the gloomy attitude towards work shared by many French people - not simply the changing culture in work places. 
According to the article, the French are destined to feel gloomy about work well before they're old enough to know what the 35-hour week means, with a significant portion of the blame lying with the French education system. 
The professors say that the way children are taught in schools in France gears them up for future gloominess in their professional lives.  
Pupils are scared of being punished and of getting bad grades, and fear the 'all powerful' teacher. This all leads to a damaging lack of self-confidence, they said.


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