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Right to disconnect: Is it illegal for French bosses to contact workers out-of-hours?

The Local France
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Right to disconnect: Is it illegal for French bosses to contact workers out-of-hours?
Photo by Ludovic Marin / AFP

France's 'right to disconnect' is often cited as an example of the country's strict workplace culture - but in reality the law is more complicated than it first appears.

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In 2017 France added the droit à la déconnexion (the right to disconnect) to the country's Labour Code.

The French Labour Code (Code du Travail) is an enormous brick of a document that lays out all aspects of workplace rules, rights and responsibilities - from eating lunch at your desk (illegal) to dating co-workers (legal), leaving the workplace if it gets too hot (a grey area, but mostly not legal) and having sex with a stranger on a business trip (legal and a 'normal, everyday activity', one judge ruled).

The right to disconnect was implemented in response to changing work practices, particularly new technology that made it possible for workers to be online at all times.

Then-President François Hollande's government decided to create formal guidelines to prevent employers from exploiting their employees.

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The goal of the law was to improve quality of life by formally separating the work sphere from the private sphere and guaranteeing that when an employee leaves work, they no longer have to respond to work-related emails, calls or text messages.

This right to disconnect applies for remote workers as well, which means anyone feeling strung out by a demand to be reachable at all times should check the rules in their business for being online. This last provision was little-used in 2017, but since the pandemic remote working (télétravail) has exploded in France, bringing with it new stresses and strains.

However the law doesn't, as is often reported, make it illegal for bosses to email workers outside of working hours. What it does is prevent bosses from sanctioning workers who do not respond to a call, email or text that was sent outside of working hours.

So it's perfectly legal for your boss to email you at 9pm, but it's also your right to ignore that email until you are back on the clock, and it would be illegal for your boss to reprimand you for taking several hours to reply.

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The law doesn't lay out a specific sanction for contacts made outside of working hours, but any kind of criticism or reprimand issued for not responding would be regarded as an illegal one, which is covered more generally under the French Code du Travail. 

Although fines are rare, they do happen - in 2017 the pest-control firm Rentokill was ordered to pay €60,000 for breaching the 'right to disconnect'. This was an extreme case and wasn't just a couple of emails sent out-of-hours - the company had set up an out-of-hours phone line which diverted to an employee's personal mobile phone. 

It is also up to workers - or their representatives such as unions - to agree on the hours they can be contacted. In previous years it might have been regarded as self-evident that time in the office or workplace was work time, while the employees' time was their own as soon as they left the building.

These days, with the rise of remote working, job-shares, hybrid working and flexi-time it can be harder to set boundaries between work and private time, and the law is intended to help employees and bosses agree on accepted times for contact. 

Although France was an early adopter of this idea, several European countries have since introduced similar rules, some more strict than the French law. 

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