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Quality of life matters, too | James Harrington

Yes, business matters - but so does something intangible ... and it's worth fighting for

MARCH 2016 in France brought news of yet more strikes; training exercises at football stadia in case of terror attacks during Euro 2016; flood-of-the-century simulations in Paris; and Front National leader Marine Le Pen’s new starring role as the nation’s cat-lady.

It would be easy, reading even a fraction of the litany of woe and fear that has come out of France in the past month, to write something equally grim and doom-laden.

But, look closer. Go beyond the ‘Oh, look those bolshie French workers are out on the streets protesting again’ headlines. Some things are worth striking for.

The right to a life outside work has to be one of them.

Ask many expats below retirement age why they moved to France and the answers are remarkably similar: to escape the rat-race; to enjoy a better work-life balance; to stop living to work and start working to live.

To enjoy a ‘French lifestyle’.

Take the much-maligned 35-hour week. Is it really that bad? Everyone says so. Yet statistics suggest otherwise.

In February, the UK Office of National Statistics published figures showing that, in 2014 (the latest year for which statistics are available) UK workers were more than 30% less productive than their French counterparts.

This is nothing new. UK workers have long lagged behind their continental colleagues.

Prof John van Reenen, who heads the centre for economic performance at the London School of Economics, probably put it best when he said last year that if UK workers worked as hard as those in mainland Europe they could earn the same amount of money and take every Friday off.

What’s not to like about working fewer hours for the same money? It sounds like a better work-life balance: which is what many people move to France to enjoy.

Prof van Reenen also said that, alternatively, UK workers could do their full five-day week and award themselves a 30% pay rise. Which does not sound too bad, either.

Meanwhile, almost unnoticed amid all the Code du Travail fuss, there is this proposed change: France wants to enshrine in law the ‘right to disconnect’ – that is the right not to respond to emails out of hours, to switch off from work, to relax, to enjoy a private life.

To escape, however briefly, the rat-race and spend some quality time with family and friends.

The person to thank for this dangerously worker-friendly proposal, by the way, is Bruno Mettling, the managing director of telecoms giant Orange Africa and Middle East.

Protecting the right to time off has clearly had another ‘benefit’. As Europe faces a demographic crisis, with Germany, Spain, Austria and others recording declining birth rates for decades, France has maintained its place at the top of Europe’s fertility table – with 2.01 births per mother.

Since 2006, it has been the only European nation to maintain a relatively high and stable birth rate.

When these figures were announced in March, experts said France’s generous family and social policies helped keep the birth rate high – which is probably true, but a population of healthy, reasonably happy and not-too-tired workers must also have had something to do with it.

Yes, labour laws need reform. They are outdated and unwieldy; and businesses find it prohibitively expensive to hire new permanent staff. The bureaucracy, despite moves to simplify it, is insane. But these reforms cannot be all about business. They have to achieve a difficult balance between work life and private life. The ‘French lifestyle’ that those lucky enough to live here have come to know and appreciate needs to be protected. For everyone.

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