The truth about work life balance in France

In North America, the general fascination with Europe centres around differences in lifestyle and societal approach to life-work balance between the European and American/Canadian society.
Moreover, the reference case for such comparisons and the corollary of North American envy is France. A visit to any bookstore would inevitably lead to the dedicated corner to everything French, where in the smallest of spaces one can see a plethora of books on the broadest variety of topics relating to France and the French. The title is always prosaic and message invariably positive. Paris, the most romantic city; French food paradox: eat butter, drink wine, live happy and long! French men are great lovers! French women don’t diet! The French work 35 hours a week and enjoy the longest holidays in Europe!
Oh, let’s all move to Paris, let loose and be French!

..well, I did. Not because of those books, incidentally, and not because I believed all the hype but, truthfully, because I needed a change and was hoping for a slightly more relaxed life, with bit more time to travel and more time to myself.

Fast-forward a year and I’m sitting admiring Parisian rooftops from my apartment, paid for with the wages from my enviable Parisian job. Friends back in North America imagine me breakfasting on fresh croissants and accompanying each meal with champagne, while strolling carefree the bohemian Paris quartiers.
But the reality is this: right now in front of me I have my work laptop, and a presentation that I’m working on …on Saturday. I spent my whole day working today and I’ll be working tomorrow, too.
Monday to Friday I work from 9-9:30 to 6:30- 7, and that’s a regular day. All my French colleagues work like this. Yes, we are given 6 weeks of vacation, but that’s to compensate 46 weeks of 10-11 hour days.

How is this possible? It’s simple. France operates on a dual band workforce: those working for one type of government job or another, benefiting from long vacations (8-9 weeks) and the prescribed 35 hour week but receiving very small wages; and those working for the corporations as “cadre” … who have to opt out of the 35 hour week, work like dogs and, to compensate, have a decent wage, 5 or 6 weeks of vacation and 5-6 additional RTT (reduction du temps de travail) days off a year. For the latter, 50 – 60 hours, plus more than the occassional weekend of unpaid work, is the norm.

If you’re dreaming of moving to France in search of that easy life, think again. As an expat, you’ll only be able to get a job as a cadre. So, unless you’re independently wealthy, your simple, stress-free life in Paris will remain a dream if you come here with a job.
The 9-5 is an Anglo-Saxon concept that is not adopted here. It’s strange to me, but all my colleagues at work are jealous of my former 9-5 life in Canada….in fact, many dream of moving to Montreal. I have days when I, too, get nostalgic for what, at the time, seemed a very stressful work schedule.

You don’t have to take my word, feel free to check out some related articles about work life balance in contemporary Europe….

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/31/us-france-workhours-idUSBRE96U13820130731

http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140312-frances-mythic-35-hour-week

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/life-easy-in-land-of-the-35hour-week-generous-holidays-and-long-lunches-non-say-burntout-french-9091678.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/10433170/Brits-work-two-billion-hours-in-unpaid-overtime-every-year.html

Not quite the stuff of dreams, is it?

Truth is, my job enables me to run around Europe at the weekends (when I don’t work) and for that, I am grateful.
But the reality of my work in Paris has killed every preconceived idea on the French life/work balance I might once have had…

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