"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Vive La France! No Work Emails or Calls from the Boss after 6pm

France has never been known as a workaholic nation.  Its state-mandated five week summer vacation, 35-hour workweek, and a very relaxed notion of work itself puts it into a unique category in the world of industrialized nations.  The French labor unions have long been strong and steadfast in their support of workers, and no President has been able to look them in the eye and say no to their increasingly damaging demands.

The latest victory for labor has been the passage of a law which forbids any employee from doing any work after 6pm.  As noted in the Guardian (Short Blog 4.10.14):

Under the deal, which affects a million employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC), employees will also have to resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones – or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita. And companies must ensure that their employees come under no pressure to do so. Thus the spirit of the law – and of France – as well as the letter shall be observed.

Another reason to envy the French.  They come into work at 10, take two hour winy lunches on the company’s nickel, drift back to the office by 3, work until 5, meet their mistresses for a cinq-a-sept liaison, and return for a home-cooked meal, a few pages of Sartre or Derrida before bed, and a long sleep until it is time to head out the door for a café cognac at the corner bar the next morning.  Now not even the boss can disturb this Gallic idyll, nor even the thought of the boss, pending work, or office responsibilities.  Every Frenchman needs time to restore, refresh, and rejuvenate.

It is no wonder that the French think that we Americans are completely loco with our 12 hour workdays, gobbled baloney sandwiches, crunch work on weekends, and inhuman two-week vacations.  Our leisure is consumed with bad food, imbecilic Hollywood movies, and tacky beach condo vacations.  We have no sense of the inviolacy of free time, the value of privacy, and the absolute right to pleasure. ‘Half-civilized materialists…anti-intellectual baboons….fat, indolent, and self-indulgent Morlocks’ are some of the epithets used to describe Americans.

We are a Type A, workaholic, success-obsessive nation whose priorities seem upside down.  Ars longa, vita brevis say the French as they shake their heads at our inverted priorities. You go around once, they muse, and only a fool spends life on work.

Americans have never learned how to relax and enjoy life’s pleasures.  Lingering is a French word.  If you see someone stand for ten minutes in front of a Fragonard or Van Eyck, it will be a Frenchman. Book browsers? French. Garden strollers?  French. Stopwatch visitors? American.

Of course many of us do contemplate art works, read thoughtfully through serious non-fiction, and take long walks in the woods; but it is all done with a purpose.  Checks on a register, clicks on a timer, calories on Fitbit, goals reached.  Goals are measured in numbers – so many miles run, hiked, or cycled, hours worked, MP3 songs downloaded, Facebook friends listed, Twitter entries noted. Many retired executives can never shake old work habits, and instead of sitting down by the fire and enjoying a good book, they take notes for the class they are taking, the book they are writing, or their next book club presentation. Enjoying retirement is not in the cards unless it is productive.

The French have an appreciation for what a thing is; Americans for what it does.

The French are particularly perplexed by our obsession with food photos. Food, it seems, is not to be eaten and enjoyed, but publicized. This might not be so bad if it weren’t for the tasteless dishes presented – foraged salads with berries, moss, and weeds; faux gourmet drizzles of grape juice, toppling architecture, and ‘creative’ attempts to make ground meat the culinary equal of pate de foie gras.

Now, we all know that French indulgence has led them down the path to economic wrack and ruin.  The short workweek, liberal leave, and extended family time have taken their toll.  Unemployment is high and rising, entrepreneurs are leaving the country for the open markets of the UK and America, the wealthy are establishing their official residences outside of France; and without the discipline, energy, and individualism common to the newly emerging Eastern economies, French GDP is slogging along at a woeful rate.

We like to snicker at this state of affairs.  They had it coming, we chortle.  Their Southern European indolence, outdated notions of cultural supremacy and national dignity, and boring reliance on academics and intellectual theorists have finally brought them down. At the same time, we wish we had some of those Gallic and European virtues of la dolce vita.  Most of us would like to chuck our Germanic work ethic, our Puritanism, and our slavish individualism.  We would love to have our afternoon trysts and not have to apologize for them, drink at lunch without fearing censure, take long, leisurely vacations with no purpose other than to lie on the beach, doze, and swim in the sea.

My sister had a boss once who was a self-described ‘multi-tasker’.  Not only was she a workaholic, jittery Type A compulsive, and insomniac note-writer; she felt that a day could be called productive only if a number of tasks were done at once.  She was proud of the fact that she could run a meeting, listen and absorb what was said while reading and responding to emails.  She never had one-on-one meetings with her staff, but scheduled two or three at a time grouped around a theme.  She sat her subordinates around the table in her office, and fired questions left and right.  While one minion formulated an answer, she moved on and grilled the next. It was an exercise in ‘dynamic interaction’ she said, collaborative management at its best and most efficient.

Needless to say she was just whistlin’ Dixie, and was thought of as an eccentric woman tottering on the rails ready to fall off as she sped around the first steep curve.  She multi-tasked all right, but became more and more scrambled in her thinking and late for everything.  She started spouting non sequiturs and often answered a question from a live colleague with an answer meant for one in cyberspace. She was an attractive woman who had maintained her looks and figure through her 50s, but the certain stylish élan which had become her trademark had gone the way of her concentration. Colors were mismatched, the elegant line defining her look from hairstyle to pumps became out of kilter.  She was becoming unhinged.

Her top advisors were awakened at all hours of the night with fevered calls, demands, and chastisements. “Where is the budget I asked for?”; or “Why aren’t you on top of the McCalley contract?”.  No one said anything to her because the more demented she became, the more unsettled her appearance, and the more deranged her expression, the scarier she was. Before her dismissal she had turned into a twitchy, mad, harridan.

The case of Nancy M. might seem exaggerated; but it is not.  Nancy was simply on the far edge of a spectrum which included many less driven but equally compulsive managers.  There must be a bottom line in France, but it is nowhere near as absolute as that of corporate America.  A bottom line here is not just a financial indicator but a metaphor for goals, purpose, performance, and progress.

In America the boss plays the fiddle and her subordinates must dance to the tune.  If Nancy M. was a workaholic, then her underlings had to be.  Whatever their Gallic sympathies might have been, when they worked for Ms. M., they were St. Vitus dancers, slave oarsmen on a Roman trireme, field hands under the whip of Simon Legree.

This new French anti-cellphone law is sure to fail.  It will further drive enterprising young people out of France, will further soften the French economy, and will embolden labor unions which have for far too long ruled the roost. The best outcome will be the final and long-awaited defeat of the Socialists – the party which in its antediluvian idealism has reined in whatever is left of French initiative, and has forced an intrusive state into every aspect of citizens’ lives.

The French themselves are at fault.  Who would turn down a five-week paid vacation in the South of France if they didn’t have to? Or a 35 hour workweek? Or a coddled, tolerant life on the factory floor or office high-rise?  Entitlement is a virtue in France and anathema in America.  Our strengthening conservatism will soon expunge the last traces of European-style statism; but the French will leave the nest kicking and screaming.  Only when France looks inward and sees a country without modern young technicians, financial wizards, and business entrepreneurs, will it be forced to change.  Politicians and citizens alike will have to sing from the same but completely revised hymn book.

My sister tells me that Nancy M. has moved to Northern California where she is trying to start her own business; but the 2000 miles from Chicago to San Francisco are nowhere near enough to cover her tracks. Her reputation as an increasingly ragged professional dominatrix followed her to the Coast, and although she has managed a few subcontracts, nothing big has come her way.

Nancy M. was a very smart lady, but one who was a casualty of America’s bottom line wars.  Her obsession with work, performance, growth, and efficiency was no different than other leading corporate executives. It was just that her wiring was defective and her circuits started to spark and flash at the wrong times.  She did not have the top-of-the-line energy regulators installed in most Senior Executives – the ones that hold the juice when compromise and cajoling are called for, and power up the amps when performance lags.

Everything comes with a price, and the long French love affair with the good life is finally becoming too costly.  The American slavishness to the gods of business and profit cannot go on forever either.  The rancorous political divisions, incessant economic competition, and the brutal pace of a modern, increasingly individualistic society will eventually cause the timbers of our Republic to shake.

2 comments:

  1. What a shitty article. It is ignorant, misinformed and extremely short-sighted. I am a French-American and I can guarantee none of it is true.

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    1. Agree Anonymous. Rather petty effort at characterization; woefully ignorant of the true strengths of France and its economy; filled with received 'unwisdom''; jealous of a sound and balanced French lifestyle. The current disastrous Socialist government is but a mere blip on centuries of culture and experience. Marked as " Should try harder".

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