France does something right.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, has earned what I consider a major economic victory. In recent weeks, both houses of the French Parliament (theChambre Lâche and the Assemblée du Capitulationpassed legislation that has been hailed–and lamented–as the end of the 35-hour workweek. This legislation makes it easier for companies, unions, and workers to negotiate working hours on a case-by-case basis.

Millions of whiners throughout France are complaining that now it’s easier for companies to force their workers to work longer hours. I’ll grant that the companies now have greater leverage than they used to—but the way I see it, it’s also easier for workers to work more than 35 hours per week if they’d like to.

Many moons ago, I went back to college to earn my teaching certificate while working full-time at a textile mill. It was a good job; I mixed and tested dyes and chemicals to make sure that our textiles came out of the machines intact and the right color. During the long vacations from school, I’d try to get as many hours in at the factory as possible—I was willing to work 90 or 100 hours a week. Since each hour of overtime would earn me time-and-a-half (almost $20/hr instead of ~$13.25/hr), a 100-hour week at the textile mill would pay a few months’ rent and bills, with plenty left over for the finer things in life: lasagna at the Acropolis, or pizza at Columbo’s, or a French dip sammich at Savannah’s…

Alas, my bosses knew how to do math as well as I did. They had plenty of work they needed done, and they knew I was pretty darn good at what I did, but why pay me that much overtime when they could simply bring in another worker and pay him the regular rate for his first 40 hours, with no overtime?

Intellectually, I already knew this, but I never really got it until I realized that I wasn’t allowed to earn a $1,700 weekly paycheck at this place. And I never reallyreally got it until I realized that I couldn’t just go to my bosses and say, “You know what? Forget the overtime bonus, just pay me the regular rate and let me work 100 hours”—which would have earned me a $1,300 weekly paycheck–still enough to pay an awful lot of bills. You can’t legally make that kind of deal in America because labor laws forbid it. I only got to work more than 60 hours a couple of times, and never more than 70.

(That may sound strange: “I only got to work…” When you’re broke, or poor, or hungry, or in any number of other tight corners, more work can seem like a privilege.)

Happily for the Frenchies who are willing and able to work the extra hours because they need the extra money, or the extra experience, or they enjoy their work, they now have more freedom to negotiate those terms than before. Sadly for the lazier Frenchies, they’re going to have to compete against people willing to outwork them.

I have mixed feelings about this whole affair—it’s obvious (at least to me) that it’s good for the French economy, but it means praising a famous Frenchman (although like most great French heroes, Sarkozy is less than a quarter French by ethnicity; see Napoleon and Zidane) and the French people in general, and that sticks in my craw a little bit. But I must applaud: with this legislation, Sarkozy has simultaneously fulfilled a major campaign pledge, made a big structural improvement to the French economy, and furthered his national demockabilization project.

In related news, it is now illegal in the United States to work for $6.54 or less per hour.


  1. Doctor Hmnahmna Says:

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July 30th, 2008 at 2:18 pm

  1. yo Says:

August 10th, 2008 at 12:30 am

  1. Mr. K Says:

What do you have against France that makes you cringe at a mere appraisal of their people?

August 11th, 2008 at 8:56 pm

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:

I don’t cringe at the thought of appraising the French. I do it all the time–it’s just that it’s usually a negative appraisal. If you meant, “Why do you cringe at praising the French?” then I s’pose it’s because I’m not used to it.

August 11th, 2008 at 10:10 pm