French employees face challenge to short-hours culture

French employees face challenge to short-hours culture


French workers pride themselves on being more productive than their peers in other countries, despite the fact that they work fewer hours — but that advantage is waning.

In a speech on Thursday Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, encouraged French people to have longer working lives, but rejected suggestions that France should abolish some official holidays in order to increase the length of the average working week.

Launching a programme of reforms, he argued that upping working hours would bring in more revenue. Mr Macron hopes the measures will help him to regain the political initiative after months of divisive street protests.

French people work 13 per cent fewer hours than the OECD average, and 14 per cent less than in the US, according to the Paris-based club of 36 rich nations. 

This is despite the fact that France’s workforce has a higher-than-average share of full-time employees — some 82 per cent of French workers are full-time. By contrast, a high incidence of part-timers drags down Germany’s average annual working hours.

The full-time French working week is around three hours shorter than those in the UK and US on average, and the French also work shorter hours than Italians, Germans and Spaniards.

France’s generous paid holidays partly help to explain why its average working hours are lower than in the US. But the French do not enjoy notably more holidays than their EU peers, many of whom take a similar amount of leisure time.

And French workers make up for their short hours by their high productivity: they are more productive than the average across the EU, the eurozone and the G7 countries.

Each hour of work in France produces about 16 per cent more value than in the UK — the equivalent of almost a full additional day of work every week. 

“The French economy has high productivity, ensuring standards of living in line with the OECD average,” according to a report published by the club earlier this month.

However, this narrative that French employees work shorter but more productive hours is beginning to falter. 

“Productivity of the French economy has been much more dynamic than those of its peers, notably European [nations], for a long time,” said Daniela Ordonez, economist at Oxford Economics. “But this trend has slowed sharply lately, with French productivity stagnating over the past few years.” 

Another factor to take into account is that a larger-than-average share of the French population is not in the workforce — largely those who are less productive and would earn the least.

In France only 71 per cent of the population was in employment last year, compared with 79 per cent of the UK and 80 per cent in Germany. The French jobseeker rate is more than double that of the UK or Germany.

Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-general, said earlier this month that “there is a real need to address the social challenges of long-term unemployment, difficulty in joining the labour market and weak social mobility” in France. 

The problem is particularly concentrated among those with lower educational attainment. Only 52 per cent of French people aged 20 to 64 years old with a basic level of school education were in employment last year, compared with 65 per cent in the UK.

“Too many low-skilled and young people are excluded from the labour market, and unequal educational outcomes weaken intergenerational mobility,” the OECD said. 

Foreigners are also disadvantaged. In France, only 61 per cent of the foreign-born population was in employment last year, 13 percentage points below the figure for those born in the country. This gap is four times higher than it is in the UK. 

Mr Macron’s plan to increase the number of hours worked “can be a track to follow, especially as it might automatically help relieve, at least partially, the huge problem of the pension system financing”, said Mrs Ordonez. But “this will not resolve the key problems French society is facing today, such as high unemployment and inequalities”.


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