Are the French lazy? Perhaps not, but they exhibit a definite preference for leisure

IMF charge of ‘preference for leisure’ rings true

Paris Plage, the artificial beach provided in central Paris in summertime. Photograph: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Paris Plage, the artificial beach provided in central Paris in summertime. Photograph: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer


When a bank holiday falls on Tuesday or Thursday, French employees take the Monday or Friday off as well. The practice is known as a pont or bridge. This year, May provides a bonanza for the leisure-loving French: a viaduc – that is, a five-day break which began after office hours yesterday and will continue until next Monday morning.

Officially, there are 36 paid holidays in France, the same number as in Britain, Sweden and Spain; seven more than in Germany. However, French civil servants take an average 44 days off annually, according to the statistics institute INSEE.

Most holidays can be traced to France’s former status as “the eldest daughter of the Church” or to her passion for historical commemoration. May 1st has been a holiday since Charles IX received a sprig of lily of the valley in 1561. In 1889, the socialist international, meeting in Paris, dedicated May 1st to the struggle for an eight-hour day.

Most of the French people I asked could not tell me that today’s bank holiday commemorates victory in the second World War, or that tomorrow’s is the Feast of the Ascension, as well as Europe Day. Though Friday is not technically a bank holiday, millions will take the day off to make a viaduc , while nominally observing a national day of remembrance for the horrors of the slave trade.

May 20th will serve as a reminder of the difficulty of breaking the holiday habit. Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin tried to abolish the Whit or Pentecost Monday holiday. Though it is no longer enshrined in law, most employers still give their staff the day off, to keep social peace.

No point
Renovating an apartment between April and September is a hazardous endeavour. One builder told me there was no point beginning work in May, because of all the ponts . June is relatively safe, but another builder refused to start the job in July because he couldn’t be certain of finishing before the sacrosanct grandes vacances in August.

Statistics show the average full time French employee works 1,679 hours a year. That’s 225 hours fewer than a German, and 177 hours less than a Briton. The French enter the labour market later and leave earlier, are better paid and take more sick leave, than their European colleagues.

Conservative deputy Jérôme Chartier has published a book, In Praise of Work , in which he blames post second World War “left-wing intellectuals” for spreading the belief that work is bad because it merely enriches the bosses.

Since 1970, working hours in France have diminished significantly more than elsewhere in the industrialised world. The socialist President François Mitterrand gave the French five weeks of paid holidays in 1981, though professions with strong unions can get up to 12. He also reduced the working week to 39 hours, which the socialist labour minister Martine Aubry further reduced it to 35 hours in 2000. Mitterrand also lowered the legal retirement age from 65 to 60.

But in the land of l’égalité , the best conditions are reserved for the dwindling number who benefit from contracts of indefinite duration, known as CDIs.

The French, to use the words of Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, have a “preference for leisure”, which means they are willing to sacrifice income for more time off. Nice work if you can get it.