Mucking up the 4-day workweek in France (2/2/2022)

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I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve seen a lot of chatter over the past few months about something that we can only dare to dream about: the 4-day work week.

With a variety of media from Le Monde to business reporters like CNBC, Fortune, and the Financial Times starting to cover the idea of working 32 hours a week, this is rather exciting news for us “5-day-a-week’ers”. (Is that the proper term for this? Have I just invented one? Let’s just go with it, shall we?)

I’m referring to a various media outlets because this seems like the sort of thing that is likely going to be bound in peer pressure. The more companies/countries that adopt this, the more likely it is to snowball. This is of course how the 5-day-week came into being in the early 20th century, giving most of us Saturday and Sundays off.

So we would all seem to have a vested interest in this discussion and experiment. (I say “we” as in those of us who are not secret billionaires who can afford to dial it in a couple of times a week.)

With all that being said, in France we seem to be going the other way. We seem to be increasing our hours, instead of decreasing.

While most French private employees work 35 hours/week, if not more (hint: 35 hrs is a bit of a myth), government municipal workers in France actually work less.

And this is why I bring this topic up now: Currently, the garbage collectors in Marseille who work around 30-hours a week, are on strike because they refuse to work longer to get to 35 hours. (I have family in the area, so I can tell you the piles of garbage everywhere are dreadful.)

The strikers are complaining about a new law that kicked in on Jan 1, 2022, saying that municipal workers need to work at least 35-hours a week, meaning 1607 hrs/year, compared to an average 1548 hrs/yr that they work now.

A lot of mayors of smaller towns and villages across France have come out and said they will ignore the law, rather than implement it. Resistance!

In addition, most primary and certain middle schools in France are already at 4-days/week, having Wednesdays off. The government tried to change the law in 2013 by trying to implement schooling for 4.5 days/week. The uproar was equally from teachers who would have had to put in longer hours, as well as parents who usually put their kids in sports and other activities on Wednesdays.

By 2017 (when the law was actually supposed to go into effect) the new govt. relented, and let each town decide what they wanted to do.

For instance, the City of Paris still has 4.5 days/week of school, while the next-door department of Hauts-de-Seine, has mostly returned to 4 days/week.

(Map above in red shows where school is 4 days/week and blue for school during 4.5 days/week.)

The French drive to match the rest of world is competing with the fact that the rest of the world is changing course. Everywhere, the pandemic has made many of us reevaluate what is important, and “work” is not so high in that list.

But as recently as this past December, President Macron has gone on the record saying “il faudra travailler plus longtemps!”, meaning “we have to work longer!”

To be clear, he is referring to working more years, rather than more hours/week. The official retirement age in France is 62 and some workers like train conductors can even retire as early as 50 years old if their job is deemed to be penible.

It brings up the question, can you work 4-days-a-week and still retire at 62 years old? Or even 65? Well, it would seem that we are already there to a certain extent. Government spending in France is 60%+ of GDP (yes really!), and public workers are a big portion of the economy, so that balancing act was already in place.

So, if French schools, many public workers, and other sectors of the economy were already at reduced hours, surely it is time for the rest of us to get join in, non?

Yes, I know, ‘“fiscal deficit”, “balancing the books”, etc… But isn’t the economic theory that increased consumer spending (from all that time off) will reduce the impact on the fiscal deficit? We can let the economists and politicians slug that one out.

Until then, if you are living in Marseille, you are either with the garbage strikers or against them.

News from across France:

  • The Guardian is blaming long truck lines on French customs agents instead of Brexit. Buried in the fine print is the quote “While electronic certification would have been possible using an EU computer system, the UK turned down an offer from Brussels to use the platform and built its own system instead.”
  • CNN summarizes current travel conditions in France if you want to come for a visit. It was published 4 days ago, and may already be out of date.
  • And finally if you are traveling to France, you should know that one of the beaches near Marseille, the Sugiton pebble beach at the Calanques, is going to be on restricted access this summer to prevent erosion. Don’t say I didn’t warn anyone.

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