Can You Live Stress Free in a French Straitjacket?
It’s a smart thing that we don’t have 50 employees. In fact, we “employ” no one at all, thanks to France’s straitjacket-style labor laws that make being an employer a company’s worst nightmare. The new labor reforms currently under heavy protest are trying to ease up a company’s ability to hire and fire in order to give obsolete employees the boot making room for those who need and deserve employment…but the large majority who are made up of civil servants, corporate employees and the unemployed are protesting against the reforms. From an American’s perspective, it’s pretty crazy considering these are jobs they can’t have because they aren’t available for this very reason.
Many years ago when one of my sisters was visiting Paris, she queried why the shopkeepers closed between 1 and 4 p.m. — just at a time when people who were breaking for lunch might be out spending their money. I defended the system that gave the workers time for their own lunch break and it was one of those things I loved most about France — that disinterest in making money, but having quality of life instead.
As the years have gone by, and I understand more about the real underlying reasons for the symptoms one sees on the surface, my own sentiments have wavered. It can be both mind-boggling and frustrating — much like ‘wanting one’s cake and eating it, too.’
One would think those who are unemployed (10.5%) would be thrilled by such labor reforms designed to open up more opportunity, but those who ‘seemingly have’ (the companies) are loathed by those who ‘seemingly have not’ (the employees) and see the ‘hand which feeds them’ as the evil tyrant. They are incessantly ‘biting’ that hand as evidenced by the never-ending demonstrations and strikes. It all seems like a throw-back to the French Revolution when the people overthrew the monarchy and established a republic. It was a very violent period of political turmoil culminating in Napoleon’s dictatorship and of course, changing the course of history. Now doesn’t seem much different than then, except that corporations have replaced the monarchy as the evil-doers in the minds of the people.
The attitude has always left a big question mark in my mind, and now, on top of it all, France is proposing a measure to legislate the “right to disconnect.” Known as the El Khomri bill (named after Myriam El Khomri, the current Minister of Labor), it would forbid companies with 50 or more employees from sending work-related emails outside of work hours. A penalty will be attached to the law, if it passes. The reasoning cited for the reform is to reduce the stress caused by the blurring of the borders between private and professional life.
This is just one reason not to have 50 employees! France has 2.4 times as many companies with 49 employees as with 50 because according to the French labor code, “once a company has at least 50 employees inside France, management must create three worker councils, introduce profit sharing, and submit restructuring plans to the councils if the company decides to fire workers for economic reasons.” (bloomberg.com) These types of regulations certainly do not encourage corporate growth and more jobs.
This new proposal to end off-hour emails takes me back to when my sister asked why the shops closed for lunch and how I defended it. Now, my sentiments have changed and this is where my head goes into a spin. I’m all for the rights of the workers, but isn’t this carrying legislation a bit too far? Is this yet another way of reducing the work load and therefore the work ethic? Is it another avenue to becoming less productive (like the 35-hour work week) and therefore earning the companies less? Will the next step be to legislate how often an employee must visit the toilets!?
Comments and criticisms in the media by various experts and workers say that:
“Returning to a backlog of emails could be worse than simply not receiving them in the first place…”
“The real problem is the culture of having to constantly do more and constantly do better than competitors.”
“In my company we compete with Indian, Chinese, American developers — we need to talk to people around the world late into the night.”
“I don’t want my company preventing me from using my mail box just because of some law.”
“I think [the right to disconnect] is wonderful for improving the human condition but totally inapplicable.”
“If we obeyed this law we would just be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
“In a few years’ time emails will have ceased to exist,” she predicts. “We’ll have moved on to something else.”
And the questions remain: should the government impose itself to ‘rescue’ the workers from potential stress and burnout? Or is this stepping over the line? How about focusing on providing work instead of reducing it?!
I have always joked that trying to do business in France is like being in a straitjacket and then asked to do summersaults! And here they are tying your hands behind your back with another regulation. How will any company survive, much less grow to more than 50 employees and create more jobs?
And then the straitjacket comes to mind. Does a person in a straitjacket become saner by being tied into a human knot or crazier? Maybe he won’t harm himself or anyone else physically, but is he mentally healthier?
I love this metaphor because, as one might suspect, the straitjacket was invented in France! In 1790 an upholsterer named Guilleret created the garment for the Hôpital Bicêtre to treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety to prevent the patient from damaging clothes or furniture and from injuring staff or fellow asylum inmates.
So, if an employee doesn’t have the right to email (communicate — isn’t that what an email is?) except for certain hours of the week on a particular time zone, will they really be less stressed, happier and more productive, or more worried and more stressed about all they have to do in less time than they had before to be productive or do their job well? And how many jobs just will never get done because time is of the essence?
At the end of it all, the bigger question is: does the French government have the right to make such anti-liberté regulations? I guess they think they do.
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group
P.S. If the rental laws in Paris interest you, be sure to read my article “Beat the Bureaucrats: The Real Story on Rental Laws in Paris” in International Living’s June 2016 issue.
P.P.S. See the latest House Hunters International — a Renovation episode, “Perturbed in Paris!” “After years of visiting and falling in love with Paris, Daryl and Angie are finally taking the plunge and purchasing their Paris dream home. But while they share a love of the City of Lights, they don’t share similar tastes. With Daryl wanting old Bohemian charm and Angie pushing for modern and airy, they clash from the start of their search. After finally picking a house, they entrust a local contractor to oversee the renovations while they attend to business matters in the United States. A series of unexpected issues mar the renovation, but the biggest challenge comes in attempting to reconcile their vastly different styles.” Visit House Hunters International to learn air times and how to rent your own copy.
P.P.P.S. Those of you in Paris are cordially invited to attend a presentation on June 23rd entitled: “Reflections of a Holocaust Survivor.” Sharon Korman will be presenting the life story of her mother, a French Hidden Child Holocaust Survivor through her clinically trained eye of a trauma treatment specialist. She will discuss her untreated symptoms of Complex PTSD as evidenced through her life span (she is now 86). Sharon will also be highlighting the intergenerational transmission of genocidal traumatic experience. The presentation will include family photos dating from the 1930’s, film clips from her mother’s Shoah Foundation video interview (1996), and material from family writing and conversations dating from 1970’s through to present day. Please consider making a 5-10€ cash donation to help defray the costs of event. Date & Time: Thursday June 23 – Doors open at 7 p.m., 7 to 7:30 p.m. petit apéritif, presentation will begin promptly 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Place: Boston University Campus, Paris, 3 Rue Jean-Pierre Bloch, 15th, Métro La Motte-Piquet. Please RSVP to Sharon Korman: [email protected]