Has the sacred French lunch break really been destroyed by Covid?

News that France has made it legal for workers to eat lunch or dinner at their workstation has prompted shock at the demise of the traditional lunch break - but is it really on the way out? And how much of a tradition is it anyway?

Has the sacred French lunch break really been destroyed by Covid?
Canteens are a standard feature of larger workplaces in France. Photo: AFP

What has happened?

From Monday, February 15th, a decree has come into force allowing employees in France to eat lunch or dinner at their desk or workstation, something that was previously forbidden under Article R4228-19 of the Code du Travail (labour code).

Why is this happening?

It's because of Covid and it's important to note that this is a temporary relaxation of the rule, the intention is that when the health crisis is over, the previous rule will be reinstated.

The idea is to make it easier for employees to keep distancing at all times while in the workplace and avoid gathering in canteens or break-rooms for lunch, which represent a real risk of Covid spreading (especially as you have to take off your mask to eat).

The revised protocol on télétravail (remote working) also stipulates that employees who are in the office or workplace should avoid 'moments of conviviality' such as gathering for coffee breaks.

Pre-pandemic, the lunchtime service saw a lot of work colleagues dining together. Photo: AFP

Exactly how sacred was the French lunch break?

The reaction from a lot of employees in France – both French and internationals – to this revision in the law was 'eating lunch at your desk was illegal? I've been doing this for years!'



So it's not exactly an unknown practice in France. The rule was also part of the labour code, a sprawling and enormous document that's meant to govern good practice in the workplace and be used in case of disputes.

Breaking the Code is more of a problem for the employer, rather the employee, and leads to fines – it's not like the French police were ever visiting workplaces and hauling off to jail anyone caught nibbling a sandwich over their computer.

So it's all a myth that the French enjoy a proper lunch break?

No, there is definitely more of a culture of taking a proper break in France than in many anglophone countries, but as ever it depends where you are, the sector you work in and the type of company.

Larger companies mostly have canteens that provide subsidised meals for employees, although people who prefer to bring in their own food can also go to the canteen to eat it.

Smaller companies that don't have canteens generally give restaurant vouchers to staff instead so that they can go to a local café or bistro for lunch. These vouchers have continued to be issued even though restaurants have been closed in France since October, so some people will have a lot of vouchers by now.

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The lunch service is a major revenue stream for French cafés and restaurants and it's very common at lunchtime to see groups of colleagues siting down for a proper lunch – not just a sandwich – and sometimes a glass of wine too – although obviously Covid-related restaurant closures have also put a halt to this tradition.

Some workplaces also have kitchens where staff can cook their own food and it's also common for people who live nearby to leave work and go home to have lunch – sometimes with their family – before returning for the afternoon shift. During the summer it's also common to see people heading to the local park to have their lunch and spend some time in the sun.

The standard lunch break is 12-2pm and many public offices and shops, especially in smaller towns, are closed during this period to allow the staff a proper break.

The culture that prevails in the workplace depends on a lot of things, including location, size of business and the sector.

The big cities, especially Paris, have developed more of an international 'snack at the desk' culture in recent years and certain sectors including media and tech are less likely to stick to the lunchtime tradition while in public administration and in smaller towns the proper lunch is more likely to prevail – there's no hard and fast rule on this though.

But if you are visiting an administration office and need the fonctionnaire to deal with something difficult or unusual it's generally unwise to go between about 11.30am and 2.30pm.

As a foreign worker if you regularly bolt down a sandwich or pasta salad from a plastic tub at your desk, your French colleagues are likely to either judge you for your bad manners or encourage you to take a proper break, depending on how nice they are.

How do the French get any work done if they're always out to lunch?

This is a common myth about French workers, that they don't really do very much, but in fact France regularly comes out well in international productivity league tables.

The French in general work shorter hours than many of their neighbours – and make sure they take a proper lunch break – but when they are at work they are highly productive.

The work day is longer, the standard for office workers and retail is 9am to 7pm, but they make sure to have a proper break in the middle.

READ ALSO How many days off work are you entitled to in France?

Then there's the holidays, the public holidays, the tradition of faire le pont and the August shutdown – all of which ensure that French employees are relaxed, revitalised, refreshed and probably more efficient than their knackered, stressed-out counterparts in the UK or the USA with their wilted sandwiches and five-minute screen breaks. 







Member comments

  1. Good luck getting an artisan to forgo their 2 hour lunch break! But the advantage has always been you can still eat a 3 course meal in 90 minutes in local restaurants. Thats if you need to 🙂

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Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)