The American Work Ethic... from a French Perspective

Sep 22, 2016

During this American election year, NPR has been exploring how people in other countries view the United States.  WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini gets the reaction of French immigrants to the U.S., in particular how they feel about a distinctly different approach the two countries take to work life and vacation time.

The European lifestyle, in particular that of the French, is often somewhat of a joke in the U.S., where work ethics seem to be different. An Ipsos Global and Reuters study found a few years ago that only 57% of Americans use their vacation days. That makes them the fifth most workaholic country on Earth. Meanwhile, that study showed French citizens leading the way in taking advantage of their vacations, with 89% taking all of their allotted time.

[French conversation at C’Ville Coffee]

I meet with  Charlottesville French teacher Pascale Hapgood at C'Ville Coffee. She arrived in the U.S. almost 30 years ago, and is a lecturer at the University of Virginia. She also teaches at a foreign and English language center, and at a French educational association promoting French language and culture.

From what Pascale tells me, her perspective aligns completely with the study's results:

PASCALE HAPGOOD: This is much more serious here. People are dedicated to their job – at least in the kind of jobs that I've had and where I've worked. Nowadays with the technology we have, I see my husband constantly answering emails on vacation, you know... we go away at the beach, he's supposed to be completely off, but he says “I have to take this!  I have to answer this!” In my mind, it's too much.

The French government seems to agree. In April, the National Assembly passed a so-called “right to disconnect” law, effective this coming January. The law will give workers the right to ignore emails, and will protect them from bosses that would punish them for not answering work emails in hours they're not supposed to be working.

Patrick Jones, a host of the travel and lifestyle news feed website Buzz60, explains what is at stake:

PATRICK JONES: They want to keep work at work. The new law would give employees the right to ignore calls, texts and emails from bosses on nights and weekends so they can go socialize. I know a lot of you being American capitalists starting freaking out now saying “oh the French are lazy” but let this information actually sink in. You would not get in trouble for ignoring emails! It doesn't take more than two seconds to search Google to find that our constant state of connectedness is killing us. Maybe it's a little lofty or unrealistic but isn't that what society should be trying to head towards?

But Pascale does not think the French model is perfect either – and it may not work in America, where the entrepreneurial spirit is deeply engrained in the nation’s history.

HAPGOOD: In France, it's not serious enough. People couldn't care less, what happens to the business... they don't think past their nose. They think “oh my little vacation,” but don't think of the good of the company, in the end.

[Kitchen sounds]

For another French view, I checked in with pastry chef Serge Torres at a Charlottesville French restaurant.

SERGE TORRES: I've been in America since June 1993, and so I started to work in New York with my cousin Jacques Torres in New York.

This would be the beginning of a long career taking him through many restaurants throughout the country, and throughout the world. And what did he take from his varied experience in the US, compared to France?

SERGE TORRES: In America we have more flexibility, in comparison between America and France, they gave me more opportunity to work for different companies. They kind of give you the chance to try to show what you can do, more than look at your resume.That's what I like about America, the opportunity and diversity of work.

And what about France’s 35-hour work week policy? That may not be as different from the American dedication to work as you think. According to Fortune, French rules aren’t really that much different from those in place in the U.S. The French actually can work more than that, and they tend to work closer to 40 hours per week, just like Americans do. The main difference is French society tends to compensate in leisure time rather than in cash.

The main difference in working hours and income between France and the U.S. boils down to the fact that French law mandates five weeks of vacation – quite a culture shock for French people here.