Ahh, the famous myth of 35-hour French work week. And combined with France’s legendary holidays, no wonder so many overworked North Americans dream about moving here. But if you are dreaming of moving to France to achieve that illusory work-life balance, you should be aware that there is the myth and the reality.
So let me just debunk this right here: most French people do not work only 35 hours a week. Maybe if they are government workers, or in specialized fields like teachers, pilots, or train operators. For everybody else, they fall into one of two categories: those that count their hours and those who don’t. Regular office workers don’t count their hours (Eg. accountants, engineers, HR officers, IT technicians, etc.). These white-collar workers are known as Cadres and are usually “at work” way more than 35 hours.
The Normal Work Week: Office Hours
The normal workday for an office worker in France starts anywhere from 8 – 9:30 am. And he/she usually doesn’t leave until 6:30-7:00 pm. Even if we count from 8:30 am – 6:30 pm, that is 10 hours per day or 50 hours a week. Are French people simply not good at maths?
Ok, so you’re going to point out that those 50 hours at work are not actually spent working. After all, there’s lunch!
It’s actually against the law in France to eat lunch at your desk. (Article R4228-19 du code du travail if you are wondering.) And a simple 1/2 hour won’t do either. Even lunch is meant to be enjoyed and digested slowly, “entrée, plat & dessert”. On average, lunch is between 12:30pm-2pm.
Now even if you love your colleagues, you probably don’t want to have lunch with them every day for 1.5 hours. (If you do, great! I’m not judging.) A lot of French people I know will instead go to the gym or tick a few items off of their to-do list.
And there’s also the coffee breaks to subtract from the hours worked. Coffee (or tea) breaks are sacred in French companies, usually, around 10 am and 3 pm for 15-20 minutes at a time. More time to spend with the co-workers, yay!
So far we’ve spent a lot of time at the gym and with our French co-workers, now why isn’t it time to go home yet!? Don’t French people want to spend time with their spouses and families? Maybe they do, but there is that other famous French cultural habit: Presenteeism. Also known as the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required.
Surely we could reduce the 1.5-hour lunch break to leave at 4 pm? You might spend a lot of time during the day during miscellaneous things, but in a lot of French offices, it is viewed quite negatively to leave before 6 pm. According to Le Monde Newspaper, France is the champion of Europe in Presenteeism.
Most office workers don’t leave until at least 6:30 pm, and depending on the amount of work, even longer. It’s fine if you are single, but if you are a parent, it’s tough.
I have friends in Paris, who don’t get home until the kids are already asleep, just like friends back home in North America. French Parents often take turns coming up with excuses to leave at what should be a normal time in order to go pick up their children. It doesn’t sound so rosy anymore, does it!?
The Labor Law
Back to our calculation: 50 hours, less 1.5 hours/day for lunch, less 30 min/Day for 2 coffee breaks, still leaves us with 40 hours.
Even if we exclude time wasted browsing the internet that’s still more than the regular 9-5 or regular 8-hour work week (including lunch) that we’re used to in North America. (Yes, I know nobody actually works 9-5 in the U.S., but there was the famous Dolly Parton movie, which you really should watch if you’ve never seen it.)
So what gives? Where do we get this snooty notion that the French only work 35 hours/week? Well, it’s the law, duh! In 2000, a law passed in France that said the legally required work week should not exceed 35 hours.
French people cheered! French companies complained! So they came up with the famous compromise: the extra hours worked per week will be “given back” to the employee as something called RTT (“Réduction du temps de travail).
In essence, if you work an average of 40 hours a week, those 5 hours will be transformed into additional vacation time. To simplify the calculation, each major industry negotiated with the unions to estimate how much additional vacation time (RTT) those employees should be getting to compensate for going over 35 hours.
This is why French holidays are so long. Legally, French Labor law gives 6 weeks holidays, but depending on what industry you are in, it can be a lot more.
A friend who works at a bank has nearly 10 weeks vacation, not counting national holidays. Another friend in insurance has just over 8 weeks. The difference between banks versus insurance industry is just due to how those industry leaders negotiated with their union, even though both friends are in the same actual job post. It seems a bit unfair for the guy working in insurance, but I suppose with 8 weeks paid vacation, no one is crying for him.
French children have even more holidays than that, basically every 6 weeks of school they get 2 weeks off. So those grownup French adults are really tightening their belt with their 6-10 weeks off.
So, what do you think, are you ready to book your one-way ticket to France yet? Will you follow your dream of working a “French-style” 35 hours work week, in order to get 8 weeks vacation? Comment below and let me know!
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