French to tackle work reform on full stomach

Paris, May 30 | Updated: May 31 2007, 05:30am hrs
Their new president wants to get the French to work harder to compete in global markets, but some traditions are likely to endure - including long holidays, a kiss for colleagues in the morning, and a decent lunch.

Going out for a proper lunch is characteristic of French culture and on an average weekday, just a few steps from the Louvre museum, the streets swell with hungry workers seeking empty spots at crowded cafes. "It's quite typical," says Gerome Jeusselim, a waiter at Cafe Pistache. "I don't think things will ever change."

Newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy may not agree. With unemployment hovering above 8% and the economy barely growing 2 %, at issue is whether France can keep up its lifestyle and be competitive.

"France is really going downhill," said Jeremy Salomon, a Frenchman working as a project manager at optical manufacturer GrandOptical in the southwest suburbs of Paris.

"If there is no change, France will be at the end of the queue in terms of productivity."

Conservative Sarkozy has promised to tackle this problem, with reforms aimed at restoring the values of hard work and rewarding people who "get up early". He wants to make the 35-hour work week a minimum, not maximum, requirement, allowing people to work more.

"Sarkozy wants to make it possible for people who work overtime to be paid for it," Salomon said. "I think he wants to try to change the French mentality in terms of work ethic."

While Americans focus on productivity, Salomon said the French waste time with meetings. He joked that another big time- drain was the tradition of greeting everyone in the morning by kissing them twice on cheek: "That's like 20 minutes gone by."

Salomon is not paid overtime, even though he usually works from 9 am to 7 pm, with an hour for lunch. Instead, he gets extra vacation -- which adds up to so many days off it is hard to find time to work. "We get 48 days off, not including national holidays," he said. "So much vacation time makes it hectic to work."

Despite free time and benefits that workers in other countries may envy, many in France are still discontented. One recent study found French workers the world's biggest whiners.

Yet according to Thomas Philippon, a New York University Stern School of Business professor, this is not because the French hate work: they value hard work highly.

He said a lack of internal promotion at companies and a lack of cooperation are some reasons why French workers are unhappy. "Overall in France, internal promotion has a bad connotation. If someone gets promoted, we think he's a suck-up." Another gripe is that raw recruits hired direct from elite institutions are put in charge of more experienced workers.

Isabelle Perrin, a spokeswoman for the CFDT, one of France's largest unions, said the French worker is unjustly maligned: what France needs is more people being put to productive use to help pay the pensions of an ageing population.

"It's less of an hourly productivity problem. The French worker is good. It's the time spent working as a professional," she said. "The young begin working much too late, and older workers stop working much too early."