French work less but outperform UK

The 35-hour week means people work harder, say top academics

1 December 2010

WITH strikes and marches punctuating the national life since the spring, many countries have looked on thinking "there they go again".

It is a running joke that striking is the French national sport, and the French are sometime portrayed as a nation of slackers who want to retire early and work short hours. But is it true?

People in France work an average 1,453 hours a year, less than the OECD average for developed countries of 1,700, but more than Germany. Men do retire earlier than anywhere in the OECD, but the new rules will bring them in line with Czechs and Hungarians, while the 40 years needed to claim a full pension is longer than in many other states (eg. the UK's 30).

As for striking, the French are indeed the EU champions, with the European Industrial Relations Observatory estimating that 123 days were lost per 1,000 workers in 2004-07, compared to an EU average of 37 (Austria had none).

However France's tally pales in comparison to Canada's, which last year lost 2.2 million working days through strikes, compared to France's 1.4 million, despite having half the population.

None the less, France has a fairly high level of strikes, despite low trade union membership: only about eight per cent, compared to 30 per cent in the UK.

However it is among the most productive countries in the world. Its GDP doubled in the past 20 years to more than two trillion euros last year, putting it fifth worldwide, ahead of the UK. GDP per hour worked is higher than in the UK, Germany and Japan.

Delphine Serre, a work sociologist from leading social sciences university EHESS, says the French remain highly productive because they work hard.

"The 35-hour working week was often put in place without taking on more staff, so people must do as much work as before, and all the lay-offs in the private sector mean people are working understaffed. If the extension of the retirement age caused such a fuss, it's because the idea of having to work longer for a no-doubt reduced pension caused revolt."

Marion Cochard, an economist at Sciences Po, added: "Generally, strikes have very little impact on production. With one-day strikes, there is a catching-up system in companies. In fact, activity is a little more intense in the days following the strikes."

"Moreover, because unemployment is quite high in France, there is a process of selection. Sometimes when unemployment rates fall, productivity falls, too, because less productive
people entered the jobs market."

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