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Lunch, coffee or cigarette: What work breaks are you entitled to in France?

The Local France
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Lunch, coffee or cigarette: What work breaks are you entitled to in France?
People smoke cigarettes on a Paris sidewalk in 2006 (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

French workers are often stereotyped as enjoying plenty of breaks - from long lunches to frequent smoke breaks and/or coffee breaks but is this accurate? And what does the law actually say?

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When watching films or television shows set in France, it seems that workers spend most of their time chatting during smoke breaks or enjoying a leisurely lunch at a restaurant or the work canteen. 

In reality, French law is not as generous as you might think when it comes to taking breaks during the work day. 

Breaks law

Article L.3121-16 of the Labour Code states that "a break of twenty consecutive minutes should be provided as soon as the working time reaches six hours. For minors, a break of at least 30 consecutive minutes should be given for every 4.5 hours of work."

Technically, a worker's lunch break would be included in this, as the law does not provide a specific amount of time for lunch.

In terms of working hours, French employees are entitled to a daily rest period of 11 hours, so if you were to finish work at 6pm, you would need 11 hours off the job until you can legally start again at 5am.

Individual work contracts, or 'conventions collectives', might also offer a more generous framework for break-taking.

Workers who spend their days looking at a screen might be entitled to more breaks, however. Another part of French labour law, Article R.4552-4, says that employers must "organise the worker's day in such a way that his or her daily screen time is periodically interrupted by breaks or by changes of activity" to reduce time spent in front of a screen. 

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When working on screens, employees are recommended to "take a break of at least five minutes every hour if the work is involved, or a break of 15 minutes every two hours if the work is less intensive," according to France's National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Occupational Accidents and Diseases.

So do French workers take long lunches?

Yes, France does have a penchant for long meals. The country ranked in first place out of all OECD countries - ahead of Italy, Greece and Spain - for the amount of time spent eating and drinking, with the average French person racking up two hours and 13 minutes per day (including weekdays) of time at the table. 

READ MORE: Work, sleep and lunch: What do the French do all day?

A decent portion of that time eating and drinking does take place at work, as many companies in France do allow workers to have significantly longer breaks than just 20 minutes every six hours. 

The French government even acknowledges this - the site Service-Public says "a longer break is generally customary (a minimum 45-minute lunch break, for example)."

Eating at your desk is also not allowed, though there was a brief period during the Covid-19 crisis where this rule was relaxed.

French labour code forbids workers from eating on 'work premises' mainly for hygiene regions. The origins of the rule date back to the late 1800s - to curb the spread of disease, the French government opted to ban lunch in the workplace in 1894. The goal was for people to eat outside, where the air was flowing and germs were less likely to be spread.

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These days, the rule has stuck around and it's a big part of the reason workers might sit together in the canteen or go out to eat during their lunch break - and businesses that have 50 or more employees are required to provide a canteen or other catering area. 

Many shops and workplaces also close during lunchtime, typically between 12pm and 2pm, while French schoolchildren also have a two-hour break. Traditionally, it was common for kids to go home to eat lunch with their families before finishing off the rest of the school day. 

What about smoke and coffee breaks?

The pause-clope (smoke break) is so common in French offices that French daily Le Figaro wrote an article this November with the headline "Beware: Your employer can forbid you from smoking". 

The article explained that there are no "legal obligations to give a smoke break and it may be refused by your employer".

There have also been cases of people being fired for taking smoke breaks without permission, according to the article, which gave the example of a security guard being fired on the grounds of 'serious misconduct' for having left his post before the end of his shift to go smoke outside the building, without authorisation.

Nevertheless, many French employers allow workers to go out for several smoke breaks a day. It is also not uncommon for workers to start the day off with a morning coffee, and perhaps to take another coffee break after lunch. 

Ultimately this depends on the employer and how generous he/she is with accepting break-time.

What about holidays?

In addition to 11 public holidays per year (13 if you live in the historic Alsace Lorraine region), workers in France are entitled to paid holiday time that amounts to five weeks - 25 days - a year.

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So on the generous side but not startlingly more than other European countries including the UK. 

The real benefit French workers get is RTT days.

France's most famous labour policy is the 35-hour week, but in fact few people work just 35 hours and the average working week is 39 hours, which is the European average.

However, those who work more than 35 hours in a week in France may be entitled to extra days off known as réductions de temps du travail, or RTT days.

This doesn't apply to everyone - generally people in management or executive positions forego RTT days and certain professions have also opted out but for many people working a 39 or 40 hour week means getting up to an extra fortnight off a year in reclaimed RTT days. 

READ MORE: These are the days off that workers in France are entitled to

The relatively generous allowances have given rise to a stereotype that French people are lazy or do not spend much time working.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

In fact, since 1970, France has consistently been at or near the top of productivity comparisons with other EU and OECD countries.

A recent study on workers' emotional well-being reported that the French were some of the most fulfilled workers of all, scoring higher than all their European counterparts.

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