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Reader Question: When does the working day start and end for French employees?

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Reader Question: When does the working day start and end for French employees?
Commuters wait for the train in the Gare de l'Est metro station in Paris, on March 7, 2023, as fresh strikes and protests are planned against the government's controversial pensions reform. - Unions have vowed to bring the country to a standstill over the proposed changes, which include raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and increasing the number of years workers have to make contributions for a full pension. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

France has strict employment rules - but does that extend to when you can clock on and off? And is it really true that French workers spend most of their time either on holiday or on their lunch break?


Much is made of France being a workers’ utopia, with strong unions, short working weeks, a low retirement age, and plenty of holidays.

The truth, as it always is, is not entirely per the brochure. Yes, the unions are strong. And, yes, the retirement age is - currently - lower than many other countries - the government’s efforts to raise it to 64 is the reason for the current wave of strikes and protests.

But other tales, such as the one about managers not being allowed to email their staff out of hours, should be taken with a pinch of salt. (Looking at this one specifically - that the rule actually says that there’s nothing to stop bosses emailing their team at any time of day - but they cannot discriminate against staff who don’t respond to an email sent outside their usual working hours).

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So what do working hours rules really say?

35-hour week - Let's start with the 35-hour week. Officially, the legal working week is set at 35 hours. This is not the maximum amount of time a person can work, but is the reference number for calculating overtime, or part-time job hours.


People who benefit from the 35-hour week might work longer (the typical working week for office employees is 40 hours) but they are entitled to time back in lieu - known as RTT days - for every hour they work over that 35-hour mark.

However, it's important to note that there are quite a lot of exceptions to the rule - certain professions are not covered by it (journalists for example - yes, obviously we checked that) and anyone who is at middle-manager level or above is also not covered. 

Here's a more detailed look at how the 35-hour week really works

Working hours - For the actual hours that people work, obviously, a lot depends on the type of work people do - bar and restaurant staff and shop workers have different hours to those in an office environment, for example.

Police, hospital staff, and emergency services and factory workers are often on shift work, just as they are in every country and most cities will have a Noctilien (night bus) service which is designed with the needs of shift workers in mind.

But, for office workers, the standard working week is Monday to Friday, with starting times, depending on where you’re located usually running between 8.30am and 9.30am; and the working day ends at between 5.30pm and 6.30pm.

It is not uncommon, however, to see some office workers - more usually managers, who have flexibility on their working time - leaving the office as late as 8pm. 

Importantly, employees are obliged to take a lunch break - al desko dining is not permitted in French offices. These are usually between 45 minutes and an hour long - to allow time for a two-course meal at a nearby restaurant, if necessary.

There are some shops and offices, especially government offices, that close completely between 12 noon and 2pm, to allow workers to go for lunch. If that is the case, they will usually stay open until 6pm. Shops typically stay open until 7pm as do other businesses such as hairdressers.


Holidays - workers are of course also entitled to annual leave (plus they may get time off for personal reasons such as maternity and paternity leave, bereavement, getting married and sick days).

The standard holiday allowance in France is 25 days a year, generous but in line with European averages. If you've ever wondered how people manage to take the whole of the month of August off, plus time at Christmas it's usually because they benefit from those RTT days (time off in lieu for 35-hour working week) and have saved up their extra hours to add onto their summer holiday.

There are also public holidays - 11 per year or 13 if you live in Alsace-Lorraine - and while not everyone gets the day off (shops tend to open on most public holidays, especially in big cities) employees would normally get extra pay or time off in lieu for working on a public holiday.

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Strikes - another reason a French employee might not be at work is if they are on strike. While it's true that the French do strike quite a lot, they also forego their salary for days when they're on strike, so having a 'day off' for a strike is not quite as good as it sounds.

Self-employed - The above rules apply to salaried employees, while those who are self-employed are of course free to work as long as they like (within certain safety and sector-specific limits).


There were around 3.3 million people in 2021 who were self-employed and this often includes those work in a family business such as a local bouangerie or café.

There are some rules that cover certain sectors, however - for example boulangeries are legally obliged to close at least one day a week, a rule intended to give their hard-working staff (working those baguette ovens is a hot and sweaty task) a break. If you're in a city, you'll likely find that boulangeries within a certain area operate an informal rota system so that there is always at least one open on each day.

Lies, damned lies and statistics - Finally, a note about international comparisons - a lot of these are based on a fairly blunt formula of taking the total population of a country - including children, pensioners and the unemployed - and dividing it by the total number of hours worked in that country.

This means that countries like France which have a low retirement age and a long life expectancy (and therefore a lot of pensioners) come out poorly in terms of hours worked. France also has an unemployment rate higher than the European average, which skews their figures.

Perhaps a more useful figure to look at is the productivity of those who do work, and in those comparisons France tends to come out well, having among the most productive workers in Europe.

It may be that it's not a coincidence that workers who have regular holidays and a proper break for lunch are highly productive when they're at work?


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