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France strikes: Workers dispute that they want a ‘right to laziness’


PARIS — Although countries across Western Europe have been convulsed by strikes this winter, French unions have drawn few cries of cross-border solidarity in their fight against a planned increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64, even as they brought parts of their country to a standstill Tuesday.

Commentators elsewhere in Europe have mocked the anger over “what would seem like a gentle reform” anywhere but France — a delusional “island of the blessed” where full-time employees get at least five weeks of vacation a year. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, meanwhile, suggested “laziness” was driving the opposition against the government’s plan.

It may be hard for outsiders to muster sympathy for French workers, with their 35-hour workweeks, their generous lunch breaks and vacation time, and their “right to disconnect” from job-related communication outside working hours. But the French protesters say they are misunderstood. Their furious response to President Emmanuel Macron’s plan, they say, is rooted not in laziness but in the fact that the French are already working hard — too hard, in fact.

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“Many unions agree that before considering pension reform, one must first talk about work itself,” said Bruno Palier, a research director at Sciences Po Paris who focuses on European welfare models.

“An American might be surprised to hear it, given that we have paid holidays and a 35-hour workweek in France,” he said, but “when the French work, they work very, very hard.”

French workers march in Paris on March 7 as trade unions stepped up campaigns to curb pension reforms that would increase the retirement age two years. (Video: TWP)

Measured by output per hour, French workers were more productive than their German counterparts — who are often perceived to be obsessed with efficiency — and only slightly less productive than Americans in 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

France also has some of the highest levels of burnout and on-the-job accidents among European workers, which researchers have attributed to a sometimes toxic and hierarchical work culture that limits employees’ growth and engagement. After accounting for differences in purchasing power, Americans earn about 17 percent more than French workers, OECD data shows.

Critics of Macron’s retirement plans have offered a wide range of arguments against the plan to increase the retirement age to 64 by 2030, including that blue-collar workers — who on average die earlier than their white-collar counterparts — will be hit hardest. But frustration with what many here perceive as deteriorating working conditions, Palier said, “is key to understanding the resistance,” too.

After weeks of protests, unions counted over 300 marches across France on Tuesday. The Interior Ministry estimated the number of protesters at 1.28 million, while unions put the figure at 3.5 million.

Many trains and flights were canceled, metro lines remained closed, and more than 35 percent of primary-school teachers participated in the strikes, according to officials. There were some clashes between protesters and authorities in Paris and other cities.

Protests will continue to impact railway traffic and refineries on Wednesday, unions said, raising the possibility of days of nationwide disruptions.

While some in France rushed to gas stations to prepare for possible shortages, most approve of the strikes, polls show.

Annie Sicre, 62, a former translator who participated in a Paris march on Tuesday, said a higher retirement age makes little sense when some French companies have developed a reputation for pushing out employees in their late 50s.

“Throughout my career, I witnessed work become more intense — and by the time I turned 55, 58, I started to struggle,” she said. After stretches of stress-related sick leave, she spent the final two years of her work life on unemployment benefits, before retiring in January.

What’s ahead of her now, she said, “is another part of life — and everyone has the right to enjoy it. This country isn’t poor.”

A higher retirement age would push many near-pensioners into unemployment or into physically challenging jobs in the gig economy, she said.

Macron, who lost his absolute majority in Parliament last year, has weighed his response to the sustained protests carefully. But he still enraged left-wing critics when he said he hasn’t been able to “spot public anger” over his plans. Macron has maintained that a higher retirement age would reflect rising life expectancy in the country, which has increased by about three years over the past two decades. Many of France’s neighbors have higher retirement ages, though the complexity of Europe’s pension systems makes them difficult to compare.

In an interview last month, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne signaled that there may be some room for compromise on working conditions. Acknowledging that the French “are not happy at work,” she promised to address their dissatisfaction. But Borne and others are going about it the wrong way, left-wing critics say.

In late January, Gabriel Attal, the ambitious budget minister, announced that he would test implementing a four-day workweek. Rather than cutting working hours, however, Attal envisioned spreading the 35 hours over four days instead of five. This would create a workday only slightly longer than the average in the United States, but the idea brought a swift backlash. Rather than putting more pressure on employees, critics said, the government should strive to reduce their burden.

Philippe Askenazy, a French economist, was on a team of U.S.- and France-based researchers that about a decade ago studied the working conditions of cashiers in American and French supermarkets. Perhaps surprisingly, they found that French cashiers had higher targets for the scanning of items and added more value per hour than their American counterparts.

Askenazy attributes the high workload in France to the adoption in 2000 of the 35-hour workweek, which was meant to boost job growth but has in some ways created a paradoxical work environment.

One of the many rules that are supposed to separate work and leisure time is a law that bans workers from eating lunch at their desks. At the same time, though, companies have embraced “high-performance workplace practices and increased the monitoring of workers,” Askenazy said.

Since the introduction of the 35-hour workweek, the French have become less enthusiastic about the importance of their jobs and less proud of their companies, according to the left-wing Jean-Jaurès Foundation. Fewer people are interested in management positions, and some have surreptitiously disconnected from work — akin to the “quiet quitting” trend elsewhere.

Palier, the political scientist, points to clusters of work-linked suicides as the most striking sign of the toxic work culture that has emerged in France. In a landmark case last year, an appeals court convicted the former CEO of France’s biggest telecommunications company of “institutional moral harassment” after 19 workers died by suicide.

Whoever wants to make the French appreciate work again, Palier said, will need to confront the toxic aspects and failures “of the relationship with work in France, with management, and the way we’ve tried to construct a strategy of competitiveness.”

French workers march in Paris on March 7 as trade unions stepped up campaigns to curb pension reforms that would increase the retirement age two years. (Video: TWP)

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.