VIVE LA 35 HOUR WEEK

I’ve never quite understood the concept of the 35 hour week in France and its observance as if it was the 11th commandment.
I do understand that many countries like New Zealand have a traditional 40 hour week, which theoretically is not much different, but what is different is that the French in the main seem to treat this as a physical barrier, rather than a rough approximation. I know from my time in NZ that the focus was on getting the job done, and if that meant working an extra 30-40 minutes or so occasionally it was all just part of the give and take of the job. In France, when we were renovating our house, workers would down tools the minute that they had worked their 35 hours even if they were 80-90% of the way through a particular task.

When you add annual leave and statutory holidays in each country the annual hours worked become even more interesting. According to an OECD study (OECD 2004, OECD in figures) the average annual hours worked in France was 1346 one of the lowest in the developed world. By comparison the average in NZ was 1767, USA 1777, Japan 1828 and Korea topped the chart at a whopping 2390.

We were given an estimate of 18 months for our renovations, and based on the size of the job and the state of the house, this seemed like a long but not unreasonable amount of time. On the morning that work was due to start, we decided that we should go to the house early to show that we would be hands-on with the renovations and to show that we were enthusiastic about the project. We arrived at the property at about 7.30 am and to our amazement there were about 30 people all over the house dismantling the roof, taking down internal walls and beginning work on removing 100 years of grime from the walls. We stayed all day and so did most of the team who left at about 7.00pm. We were even more impressed when the same was true for the next 2 days. I had heard so much from other Anglophones living here about how lazy French workers were, and here they were putting in 12 hour days and proving all these negative French-work-ethic comments to be completely wrong.

When we turned up on the Thursday morning there were only a handful of people on the site, being only the self employed subcontractors as I found out later. The rest of the workers had completed their 35 hours in the first 3 days so were all staying home to watch television (see my comments in “I live to work or I work to live” posted on July 5, 2010). I was now starting to understand that the 18 month time estimate for the project had less to do with the state of the house and work needed, and more to do with the attitude of the workers involved.

I tried different incentives to see if that would speed up the process, but all to no avail, as these were always rejected based on the fact that the renovation team felt that most of the financial incentives would go to the government anyway, and so it eventually took almost 3 years of work before we could physically move in.

Hallway Before

Hallway After

Despite the whole project being so lengthy, and as a result significantly more expensive (you should generally allow about double the purchase price for renovations), I have to say that the quality of the work was excellent. The artisans that we found to do the restoration of a house built in 1802, and badly maintained for over 100 years, were absolute masters. I wish that I could say the same about the plumbers, however this does not fall into the same skills category, and with both properties that we have owned in France this has always been the real weak point in the French crafts armoury.

Salon Before

Salon After

Before coming to live in France, I lived in Singapore and worked in Asia Pacific. I am not at all surprised that Asian countries and India are now taking their rightful place in the world, and seem to be weathering the economic storm better than most. Just based on work ethic alone, how can France that just works 35 hours per week compete with these regions where people just sleep 35 hours per week?

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