A view of an ornate government building In France with a French flag flying overhead against a clear sky.
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What can we learn from French labour laws?

19 Feb 2019

How do the French work? From the ‘right to disconnect’ to the 35-hour work week, here’s what we can take away from French labour laws.

The French are known for a lot of things. The nation is lauded as an international centre of culture. It is famed for producing some of the best food and drink in the world. It also, as we’ve been learning this month on Siliconrepublic.com, is a sci-tech hub worth keeping your eye on.

So let’s say you’ve become enamoured with the country and are gearing up to take a job in Paris. How are French labour laws different? Here, we’ve investigated some of the core tenets of French labour laws, attempting to separate fact from fiction.

France’s labour laws are codified in a sprawling, ever-expanding text called the Code du Travail (Labour Code). It is a staggering 3,342 pages long and covers everything from hiring and firing to eating at one’s desk. It contains some of the most notable provisions, such as the five weeks of paid leave, that have made Gallic working culture famous – or infamous, depending on your perspective.

The French working week

The 35-hour work week was adopted in France in February 2000 under the aegis of Lionel Jospin’s Plural Left party, a left-wing coalition that met its demise in 2002. It was introduced to boost job growth and help tackle France’s stubborn 10pc unemployment rate.

It is arguably the most notorious facet of French working culture and has been derided by CEOs and US presidential candidates alike. Yet much of the negative reaction stems from reliance on an inaccurate stereotype that French employees are ‘lazy’.

French employees do work fewer hours than employees in other developed countries, yet they put in longer hours than those in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, according to the OECD. Furthermore, French workers are more productive than UK workers, despite UK workers putting in more hours. Hence why a less is more approach to the working week is increasing in popularity. Not to mention that employees have the option to work overtime, and often do.

Macron’s contentious overhaul

French president Emmanuel Macron has attempted a “major and ambitious” overhaul of France’s labour laws in order to make the country more competitive in the global market.

His changes cap pay-outs to exiting employees and give employers the flexibility to negotiate working conditions, as opposed to complying with sector-wide rules. In other words, it makes it easier for companies to hire, fire and amend employee obligations. Macron argues that the existing web of bureaucracy discourages growth and is contributing to the sluggish economy.

It’s a pretty significant shake-up, and one that has inspired massive strikes since the changes were first implemented.

The right to disconnect

In one of the few amendments that didn’t inspire protest, French employees recently won the ‘right to disconnect’. The new reforms require French companies with more than 50 employees to guarantee workers the right to disconnect from technology when they leave the office. The law, which first came into effect in 2017, was inspired by the scourge of employees feeling the need to be ‘always on’, constantly checking emails and responding to work-related queries outside of office hours.

In 2018, the French arm of British pest control firm Rentokil Initial was ordered to pay €60,000 to a former employee whose right to disconnect was breached. The ex-employee, a former southwest regional director in France, was allegedly forced to “permanently leave his telephone on … to respond to requests from his subordinates or customers”.

The employee, named ‘Mr Y’, was fired in 2011 and took the case through the French courts, eventually having compensation granted by France’s supreme court. Though the employer in the case argued that the employee in question was never explicitly asked to remain ‘on call’, even giving out the employee’s number as a point of contact for out of hours is enough to constitute being ‘on call’.

Updated, 11.27am, 21 February 2019: This article was updated to clarify that French workers are entitled to five weeks of paid leave.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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