"France Bans Work E-mail After 6pm." This headline, from Newser, shot around the world last month, earning the usual sneers from American and English pundits about the lazy French and their ridiculously worker-coddling laws like a 35-hour workweek and several weeks of vacation a year. Turns out it was misreported and became a huge global PR headache for a country that is actually trying to loosen its economic policy. The 6 p.m. ban, which technically doesn't exist, referred to a union agreement among a few hundred thousand tech workers, to make sure that they unplugged after working up to a 13-hour day, within up to a six-day workweek.
But as The Economist pointed out, "the real trouble for France is that the story even appeared plausible in the first place." Why do we think the French are so lazy?
It got me thinking about differences between the NYC and the Paris workday. First, I should point out, as a New York–Paris freelancer whose majority of friends also work in creative or editorial fields, I don't know much about the typical workday. My friends in either city are both prone to starting their day after 10 a.m. but then very likely plow through projects all day, not stopping until a social event at 8 p.m., working more once they get home, then repeating that schedule for several days, including weekends, until they take up to a full week off and go away. Rest assured, a bank or government clerk in New York is just as likely to shoo you away at 4:58 p.m. as one in Paris is.
Still, there are fundamental differences between how New Yorkers and Parisians work, or think about their work, regardless of what they do. And of course it has to do with differences between American and French attitudes, even if the two cities represent steroidal versions of their respective country's stereotypes. In America, particularly in blue states like New York, we may have gained certain worker protections and life securities, such as anti-discrimination laws and quasi-affordable healthcare (for some). But we're still a rough-and-tumble frontier nation where you better hustle for your supper or go without — especially in an expensive, career-obsessed city like New York.
In Paris, I know talented, sporadically employed folks who've not made more than a centime in several years but don't seem that stressed about it because their basic needs — rent, health care — are government-subsidized. They suffer, rather, from a lassitude that simply isn't sustainable in New York (at least without a trust fund). Often, if they can, they move to Brooklyn, London, or Berlin, where they're stunned at how easy it is to show their art or start a business. Several times, I've heard talented Frenchies comment that New York won't give you a handout, but it'll at least give you a chance. Which, often, is more than you'll get in Paris, where you have to become a success elsewhere before your own city will embrace you.
Here are a few other key differences:
New Yorkers weave work and play into their 24/7; Parisians set strict boundaries. "In France, you have an hour-ish break for lunch every day — no one eats lunch at their desk — and a break every weekend," says Anna Polonsky, a Parisian who's the New York director of the crazy-popular French restaurant and hotel guide Le Fooding. "So when it's work time, it's work time. Whereas in New York, the spirit seems to be that every day is a workday, so how do I incorporate breaks to take care of myself?"
She points out that the New York custom of hitting the gym before rolling into work around 10 a.m. is virtually unheard of in Paris, where most folks hit the office at 9 a.m. sharp. On the flip side, French employers without cafeterias actually encourage staffers to take lunch outside by giving them special tickets resto to get lunch discounts. (Not bad, eh?)
Because they set strict boundaries, Parisians see themselves as more focused when they work. "To generalize, New Yorkers can be really inefficient at work," says Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, a French tourism exec in New York who's also worked in Paris. "They'll stay really late to impress the higher-ups but they're actually just procrastinating." She points to Google's Chelsea "fortress," chock with food and games to keep employees on the premises 18 hours a day. "The workers don't see actually how pernicious that 'friendly, feels-like-home' environment is. French folks haven't forgotten how to enjoy life, to hang up their work gloves, so to speak, and go meet friends for dinner." (New York's affected her, too. She's currently working 70-hour weeks here.)
Says Franco-American Natasha Birnbaum, educated in France but working now in New York: "New Yorkers spend much more time at their desks, but much of it is on Facebook or Gchat. The French generally are more productive. There have even been studies showing that." (She's right. A 2009 UBS study showed that the French worked the least hours in the world but still boasted high GDP per capita among rich nations.)
New Yorkers love to talk about how busy they are. "It seems to be so cool to say that here," notes Polonsky. "New Yorkers define themselves through their work, whereas in Paris, though things are changing, it's still a bit rude to start a conversation by asking someone 'What do you do?'"
I've heard Polonsky's argument many times before. I have a French scientist friend who often leaves her Geneva base to work with colleagues at Harvard. "The Boston researchers love to go on and on about how hard they're working," she told me, "but to us French, who basically just shut up and do our work, it can seem like so much brasser du vent" — a French term, literally meaning "to whip up the wind," meant to evoke the image of flailing one's arms about dramatically. (French folks think that Americans in general brassent du vent too much.)
Parisians operate on a different timetable. It's not unusual for New Yorkers to answer emails instantly, or, if they receive an email at night, first thing the next morning. Parisians may not answer an email for days, and certainly don't feel obligated to answer them while on vacation. Similarly, Parisians may insist on meeting for coffee or a drink to transact quick business that easily could be taken care of over email or with a phone call at most. As someone who's spent the past four years trying to hear back from Parisians while on deadlines, it can be exasperating. But there's also something sweet and charming about someone who wants to actually know you before doing business.
Parisians aren't terrified of being fired. By law, there are two kinds of jobs in France — short-term and long-term — and even though the proportion of short-term jobs is rising just as freelance and temp work here is replacing full-time jobs, everyone knows that once you've gotten a long-term contract, the law makes it very hard for your boss to fire you. (Consequently, there's less hiring overall because bosses are afraid to take a chance on a staffer who doesn't work out.) This is not to say that all Parisians are lazy or indifferent workers — though, to be frank, many of them are, especially in the service sectors — but only that they live with less fear of being let go.
This creates a peace of mind most New Yorkers will never understand. "New Yorkers are guilty about relaxing," says Fabre-Lanvin. "And that's too bad because when you have a good time, it contributes to your equilibrium, it makes you happy and it's good for you health, which makes you more available and enthusiastic at work."
Having said that, she also recalled that she was able to start her own consulting company here in New York, even before she'd finished school. "Don't make me sound like a hater," she said. "I love living and working here versus France. I'm just saying that we French are hard workers, but we love life, too."