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We've been coming here for 30 years, and have observed that work is viewed and carried out differently in France than it is in the U.S. Statistics tell one story, but a stronger impression comes from real people whom we know. We cannot know everything there is to know about the French economy, but we have formed our own views of Work In France.
It's a very diversified economy, with high-tech industries like aerospace, electronics, chemicals, nuclear power, and pharmaceuticals contrasting with farming, manual labor and small shop keeping. The prestige industries of fashion, perfume, jewelry, wine and spirits continue to boost France's image with new buyers in China and the developing world. But there is a sea of unsold wine, and reportedly cognac sales are dropping.
Tourism is about 6% of the economy, peaking at 77 million visitors in 2002 before dropping to 75 million last year during war and economic recession. The Japanese spend about 272 euros (one euro = $1.24) per day when they visit, the Americans 208 euros, and everybody else under 200 euros. France is the number one tourist destination in the world.
The farming sector is heavily subsidized, as it is in the U.S. The U.S. expends $180 billion each year to subsidize cotton, wheat, corn, cattle and soybeans, with the largest industrial landowners benefiting. The EU spends around $170 billion on agricultural subsidies, but it is primarily the small family farms who receive benefits. The land in France is the richest we have seen. In addition to wine and grapes, France produces wheat, sugar beets, dairy and meat cattle, as well as a myriad of other agricultural products. The food supply is of exceptionally high quality here (but the meat is tough). The French have made a political choice to keep out any genetically modified strains of food. Although farming is subsidized, French farmers work the hardest and longest physically of any sector. On some of the gites that are working farms, they work from 7 in the morning, to 9 p.m. at night. They are self-reliant and use some barter/exchange as the basis of maintaining a comfortable standard of living.
The industrial and public sectors have been subject to the 35 hour work week norms in the past few years. They were supposed to add new employees to do the work from the other 5 hours that the original employees are now not working. I have read reports that this has not resulted in significant new hiring of employees, but rather decreased productivity, as the same employees receive their original pay for working less hours. A report in today's Le Monde alludes to France's trailing productivity. Work rules are extremely strict, and employers have little flexibility to fire. The workforce receives first world pay, but at a 59% income tax rate, enjoys less of their salaries than most other nations' workers. However, again and again, we hear that most employees are glad to pay high taxes to make sure all French people have a decent retirement pension, and health benefits, and unemployment protection (they need it, because French unemployment is high, between 9 and 10%).
The government sector is large, accounting for 25% of the employment, compared to a figure of 15% in the U.S. We have seen figures as high as 40% government employment, perhaps counting the mayors for each of the 63,000 communities, their deputies and adjuncts. Interestingly, the efficiency of the road workers is extremely high, responding to calls to fix roads, remove downed trees and obstacles in rapid time. The post office is efficient, compared to that in the U.S., based on our experience. Workers gravitate to the public sector, for they are eligible to receive good retirement benefits from a part-time mayor's job after only a few years.
We know some workers in a quasi-governmental organization, EDF, the electrical utility, who cynically exploit the system to do as little as possible. This attitude is widespread. One EDF employee Corinne Maier, has written a bestseller, "Bonjour Paresse" (hello laziness), estimating that at least 17% of the workforce is actively engaged in resisting the demands of their employers, using sabotage, or staying home from work. She says "Work is organized a little like the court of Louis XIV, very complicated and very ritualized so that people feel they are working effectively when they are not". She argues that since France is not a meritocracy, unless you have a diploma from one of the prestigious schools, normal people have no chance to move up. Therefore they should protest exploitation by devoting as little effort to their jobs as possible, focusing on their personal lives.
A September 9 editorial by Michael Johnson in the International Herald Tribune states " In the French publishing firm where I worked, employees simply did not buy the argument that their work might be inherently worthwhile and essential to the success of the firm, the source of their sustenance. They resented the fact that shareholders took home unearned income from their daily work!"
We hear from our 20-35 year old friends how very difficult it is to get any entry level job. One acquaintance assembles electronic parts on a 6-month government subsidized job entry program, with no chance of getting hired full-time! Another young person has decided to spend the next 6 years getting a doctor's degree so he can go into academia (thereby postponing entering the workforce). Jennifer, the English student we are tutoring, says that the number of positions teaching English dropped 68% last year to 150, and next year there will only be 80 in all of France open to those passing the exam. Her fiancé Francois is highly educated in forestry and environmental management, but he, too, cannot find a job.
A retired engineer from Alcatel reported that French companies are eager to get rid of employees after age 50, and that he was told at age 45, that there would be no more opportunities for advancement at his age. He just stuck it out until retiring at age 60. So the productive part of most people's career only lasts between age 35 and 50. And higher education is of little help in getting a job or advancement This is sad!
Our French friends tell us that family and leisure time are far more important than working more hours, receiving more money, or accumulating more possessions. French people work 300 fewer hours than Americans (who work 1978 annual hours now). But many people report being financially strapped, unable to buy some of the things they would like to have, or make use of their 6 weeks of vacation to see the world. In contrast, we hear Americans wishing for more leisure time, and the need for more widespread health care coverage available to all. There is no perfect system.
We know there are jobs here, because we have read articles about where they are: in the hotel and restaurant business, in home and nursing home health care, in the trades. Our friend Michel's metal workshop has a backlog of all the balconies, railings and lawn chairs he can possibly weld and fabricate in Latour de France. According to the September edition of French News, the technical schools are half empty, same for the restaurant and cooking schools. Yet artisans (tradesmen) complain that they cannot recruit youngsters for manual occupations like plumbing and plastering "a job which will never be shut down by an international takeover or relocated to another country...they all want to go into the post office with a 35 hour week and a guaranteed pension". Qualified nurses and midwives have to be recruited from Spain now. Even the hairdressing industry (which requires 4 years of technical school) would add to their 118,000 workforce if they had applicants.
In France, the share of working age people with jobs is around the European low of 62%, compared to 71% in the U.S. (IHT, 9/29/04) This could be increased, if desired, by reducing bureaucratic and tax barriers to creating small businesses. Since French women now produce fewer babies than are required to maintain population stability (1.8 children per couple, vs. 2.1 for stability), at some point in time a social policy change may be required to fully employ either the current or future immigrants (most of whom are Muslim). As population decreases, the government's ability to pay the generous health and pension benefits is reduced, threatening the social contract.
There is only one individual amongst all of our friends and acquaintances who genuinely seems to be enjoying her work. She works in international aerospace, with a technical degree and managerial experience. She travels the world and is having a ball. But for most of the other people we know, work is described as a necessary but boring imposition on one's "real life".
The two views of work could not be more profoundly different. Anglo-Saxon attitudes about work involve the virtues of discipline, personal growth, enjoyment of the use of one's talents, plus the chance for savings and consumption. French attitudes toward work imply something to be endured or gotten through in order to reach the after-life; but everyone's work is collective and ensures the comfort of all. I have come to believe that these attitudes are rooted in history: the medieval lord took care of the serf. Working for an entity who provided protection from bandits and doled out basic food and shelter in return for working the fields became deeply engrained. In America, self-reliant individuals struck out across the ocean into the unknown, and did whatever job was necessary to survive. "Ain't nobody gonna take care of me but myself", said one of our American visitors last fall. It's still like that today.
Claudia and Steve
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