Last week a crazy rumor about France went viral across American media. Someone, somewhere, suggested that in France they’d passed a law forbidding employees from sending work emails after 6 p.m. Ridiculous, right? France is a free-market democracy and the 5th biggest economy in the world, how could you even imagine a law like that? Except that everyone bought it and the rumor spread like wildfire.
What was so easy to believe about it? How come the idea that the French would legally shut down work emails at quitting time was so…credible? How come you’re smirking now as you read this?
If there’s one thing that irritates the French about Americans, it’s when they accuse them of being lazy. If there’s one thing Americans (and Brits) love to think about the French, it’s that they have the option not to work that hard and that the French government fervently enforces this right seemingly not to be productive. The preferred counter-argument to this is the French claim that despite their reputation, statistics show they are actually among the world’s most efficient in terms of hourly labor productivity.
But when the British newspaper The Guardian first published a story about a deal between the French employers’ federation and labor unions requiring staff to switch off their phones after 6pm, with the temptingly shareable headline “When the French Clock Off at 6pm, They Really Mean It,” it got picked up all over UK and US media, from the New York Times (“A Move to Limit Off-the-Clock Work Emails”) to New York magazine (“Two French Unions Ban Checking Work Emails After 6pm”) to USA Today (“France Bans Work Email After 6pm”).
Even Perez Hilton, Hollywood-based celebrity blogger, found the story worthy enough—amusing enough? Enviable enough? Eccentric and social media friendly enough?—to publish a post about it which he then tweeted to his nearly six million followers. Who knew he was such a Francophile.
The Guardian article was not exactly accurate and the newspaper later published corrections. The accord between unions and corporate representatives seeks to guarantee employees in some high-tech and consulting sectors the “rest” period of 11 consecutive hours to which they are legally entitled. These are employees who contractually do not benefit from the (infamous) 35-hour French work week. There was no imposed cut-off time for emails and the agreement, which would actually affect only 250,000 workers and not one million as the Guardian story claimed, has yet to be approved by the French Labor Ministry.
French reaction the global buzz about their new quitting time ranged from indignant to just weary. After all, the French are used to the rest of the world’s stereotype of them as long-vacation-taking, short-work-week employees. As the French edition of Slate wrote: “As seen from the Unites States or England, French labor law is often summed up as a series of policies created by bureaucrats in order to make sure that lazy workers can get away with doing as little as possible.”
Nonetheless, they really don’t appreciate it. They even have a name (in English!) for what they see as a kind of chronic aggression—French-bashing (“frahntsch-bahsheeng”)—and the grumbling was heard all over social media. Objectively, it was actually a little surprising how fast this (false) story took off. Enough that it actually culminated in a public denial on Twitter by France’s minister of the digital economy, Axelle Lemaire.
Which brings us back to the essential question of why it is that Anglo-Saxon media was so ready to believe the story.
There is something terribly gratifying for Anglos about the idea that there is this place that—in their imaginations at least—is so flagrantly against work. For cultures like the US where there is so much value invested in the idea of work, where working hard is so deeply rooted in the national identity and folklore of social mobility, one of the core values upon which America the great is built—well, for a place like that, actually wanting not to work hard isn’t really something you would readily admit. Because if you don’t work hard in America, who are you? You are, to some extent, a failure.
Or you are, in these overworked imaginations, French. France—or, to be fair, a certain fantasy of France—has become this place where eccentric social values and market-resistant leftist politics encourage not working hard. Fantasy France is both a France that doesn’t entirely exist, as this inaccurate story revealed, and a France that is a kind of dirty secret, something too wrong to admit to desiring. The France of the 35-hour work week, of the 6pm cut-off for work emails, of the long summer vacation months—that France has become a place where Americans can safely project their secret fantasies.
Imagining—and disparaging—this Fantasy France that deliberately doesn’t work hard is a way to sublimate a desire too shameful, too un-American to admit. A perfect recent example is this much buzzed-about Cadillac ad for their first electric car, where you see a chest-pounding corporate tool with the rich man’s essential accessories—big house, big pool, big car—explaining why “we work so hard.” The answer is…because we’re not French! Other countries, they work, stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy driven hard workers, that’s why. And in the end, the ad implies, you get the Caddy. The French? They get August off. As for all the stuff? That’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?
We have to be able to belittle France, to scoff condescendingly at the quaintness of this land of leisure…. as we mete out our three weeks of annual vacation and tally our billable hours before the bonus talk with the boss who stays in the office even later than we do every night. Because if the French can have their leisure and love themselves too, well, what does that say about us?
Thank goodness the French have such preposterous and laughable ideas about work! Who would want to live like them?