Paris Letter: France claims its ‘right to be lazy’

An in-depth study shows work has been seriously devalued and the ‘balm’ of laziness is being embraced

France is undergoing “an epidemic of laziness”, says an in-depth study published by the centre-left Fondation Jean Jaurès with the Ifop polling institute this month.

Sigmund Freud said the two most important things in life are to love and to work. If France seems to have lost its bearings, perhaps it is because work has been seriously devalued.

In 1990, the social scientists Jérôme Fourquet and Jérémie Peltier write, 60 per cent of French people said work was a “very important” part of their lives. Only 24 per cent say the same today.

The survey studied the relative importance of six lifestyle components. No other category came near the 36-percentage point drop in the importance ascribed to work. Over the same 30-year period, family fell 10 per cent, from 81 to 71 per cent. Religion fell from 14 to 5 per cent.


While the Covid pandemic is not the sole cause, it “has had a profound impact on our relationship with work and our family ties, but also increased the value of free time and the private sphere,” the study’s authors write.

Two elements have increased in importance over the same period: friendship, up six points at 46 per cent, but especially leisure, which has risen 10 points to “very important” for 41 per cent of the population.

When then President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that French people “work more to earn more” in 2008, two-thirds of those surveyed were willing. That figure has been inverted, with two-thirds now saying they prefer to work less and earn less, despite the cost-of-living crisis and greater demands for public services.

France, like the US and other European countries, has seen a “great resignation” since the Covid pandemic; more than half a million departures in three months in late 2021 and early 2022. They included 470,000 who left permanent jobs known as CDIs. Time was when a CDI, which offers virtual lifelong job security, was considered tantamount to nirvana.

A third of the French now work remotely at least one day per week, while close to a quarter work remotely three days or more, with the highest rates on Mondays and Fridays. Authorities now talk about “rush days” rather than rush hour. The Paris transport company RATP reports 18 per cent fewer passengers on Fridays than on Tuesdays.

Disinterest in work is accompanied by a sense of lethargy. Thirty per cent say they are less motivated than before the pandemic. That rises to 40 per cent among 25-34 year-olds, and is highest in Paris, at 41 per cent.

A country known for its vibrant cultural sector now appears in danger of becoming a nation of couch potatoes, with 45 per cent saying they are less interested in going out than before the pandemic, 50 per cent in the Paris region.

Sales of cinema tickets have decreased 34 per cent. Night clubs, associations and volunteer organisations report a collapse in attendance. Habits acquired during Covid lockdowns have become entrenched. The sale of home video projectors and deliveries of prepared food have skyrocketed. “Embrace the art of doing less” is the slogan of Uber Eats. The verb “chiller” (to chill) will enter Le Petit Robert dictionary in 2023.

Outrage at income inequality and a feeling that one’s work is not appreciated are also demotivating factors. In 1993, 54 per cent of French employees believed their efforts were rewarded fairly, while 25 per cent said they were not. Today, 39 per cent say the balance is fair, but 48 per cent believe they are the losing party.

The value ascribed to work depends to a great extent on one’s age and politics. “Quiet quitters” who do as little as possible without being fired, now represent 37 per cent of French employees and 45 per cent of voters for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left France Unbowed.

Among the predominantly young French citizens who voted for Mélenchon in the first round of the presidential election, 61 per cent said they are less motivated to work than before the pandemic. That falls to 28 per cent among Emmanuel Macron’s older voters.

Yet 69 per cent of those surveyed supported “the right to be lazy” claimed by Sandrine Rousseau, a far-left environmentalist. That rose to 85 per cent on the far left.

“The Right to Be Lazy” was invented by Frenchman Paul Lafargue in a social manifesto published in 1880. “Oh laziness, mother of the arts and of noble virtues,” Lafargue wrote, “be the balm for human anguish.”

Lafargue was the son-in-law of Karl Marx.