Are French strikers lazy, unreasonable, or heroic? Here’s what the outside world says
23 feb 2023
Across the globe, digital and social transitions continue to upend our relationship to work. As of late, the pandemic and inflation have only added fuel to the fire, and no country seems safe from mass burnout and recruitment crises. Part of that intensifying storm of change is retirement policy, the future of which is hazy at best — that’s true not only in my home country but all over the world and across radically different social systems. So it’s no surprise the resistance to France’s pension reform, which is set to push the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, has caught the attention of foreign media.
I won’t be exhaustive; the world is vast. I’ll be looking at three countries whose press I read: the United States, the UK and Germany. My analysis will, of course, compare similar outlets. Media coverage on this subject says a lot of things about a nation’s demons and its protest movements (or lack thereof). In the US, progressives are questioning the weakness of their social model and are looking to France for lessons in activism. The British, who’ve in the last few months experienced the highest number of strike days since the Thatcher era, feel a bit like they’re in the same boat as the French. When it comes to the Germans, they don’t get it: “How could anyone oppose this reform?” ask their journalists, convinced that it’s the obvious way forward.
Some pundits try to explain our system of répartition (a collective pay-as-you-go model), our cotisations sociales (social security payments), our régimes spéciaux (special pension plans for specific institutions), and the décote (pension decrease for early retirees) — the latter of which is hitting retired French women hard. But you can tell they’re not particularly interested in the technical details. Instead, they prefer to lean on three customary clichés about French workers: that they’re lazy, rebellious and unreasonable. Indeed, the revolutionary spirit of the French drives them to set the country on fire, leaving total chaos in their wake, refusing what’s been presented to them as “reasonable.” Right or wrong, these are the stereotypes that loom large in the foreign press.
The French are lazy
“Are French People Just Lazy?” asks one historian in the New York Times: “We might take a break from our workday to glance at the country’s history. Are the French, as the stereotype goes, being just lazy? […] Yes, the French are also lazy.” While this article by Robert Zaretsky is… well, lazy, on the subject of pension reform, it’s well-researched on the philosophical tradition that favors sloth: it covers Michel de Montaigne’s idea of retirement dedicated to leisure, Paul Lafargue’s argument “The Right To Be Lazy,” Frédéric Lordon’s book Willing Slaves of Capital, and Sandrine Rousseau’s recent advocacy for the right to laziness. For the past few years, American intellectuals have been invoking their own “right to laziness” in a culture where work is kind (for example, in Laziness Does Not Exist Devon Price discusses the numerous virtues of “laziness”).
Regardless of French workers’ actual productivity (which is high) or the number of hours actually worked (higher than Germany), the so-called French laziness is, above all, a state of mind. In France, it’s not just the sociologists and philosophers discussing laziness and work — it’s everyone. From what lunch at the workplace should look like to the sacred nature of vacation, not to mention the legendary debates on the reduction of working hours and social progress, the French consider work a cultural and political topic. To the US, the UK and Germany, the phenomenon is perplexing.
The “laziness epidemic” supposedly hitting France (according to a report by the Jean Jaures foundation) echoes British concerns: having fallen prey to terrible inflation, the UK has had massive strikes and questions how work is compensated. It would be an exaggeration to say they’re in sync with the French in this regard, but with an age pyramid similar to ours, they’re also debating retirement and senior workers. The British left, in turmoil on the labor front (but strong in parliament), are curious about France. In the United States, where citizens have an average of less than 2 weeks annual vacation and parental leave is not a right, the French debates are exotic and entertaining for the minority of Americans who deign to be interested. The Germans are forced to acknowledge that the purported French laziness is just a cliché. They work less than the French do!
The French are revolutionaries
In the land of the fabled revolution, we love chaos, we’re easily angered and we don’t hesitate to “disrupt” a well-oiled society. In the British, American and German media, the photos chosen to illustrate these articles show fire, tear gas, crowds, loud banners and disorder. It’s easy to envision us as revolutionaries. The French are a bit scary… but they also elicit a bit of admiration in their ability to create terror.
On Reddit, the thread Gotta Love The French talks about it with amusement and admiration: “The French would rather burn Paris to the ground than be forced to have a job for two more years, gotta respect that.” One user believes “the French love to riot as a means to protest, and they’re damned good at it.” Another wishes “America could be more United when it comes to workers rights. Instead we are a bunch of crabs in a bucket.” A third point out, “They don’t take shit laying down. Weird how the country without guns is the one where people constantly fight against the government and get what they want.” When you read this thread, you understand that France essentially provides an activist instruction manual for all the workers forced to eat garbage — appealing to Americans in particular.
The Germans don’t love chaos so they don’t get it. “The subway stations were closed, trains were canceled, and the French have stopped working in schools, town halls and refineries around the country. What has made them so angry?” You can feel the Germans shivering at the idea of “disruptions” provoked by angry workers. From my point of view as a French citizen living in Germany, German “disruptions” are usually due to crumbling infrastructure (it’s a country where they still send faxes in 2023) rather than rebellions: the Germans are totally submissive and accept their growing inequality without blinking.
The French are unreasonable
The stereotype of the French as “unreasonable” is widespread in the German media. “The French government wants to move the retirement age to 64 and resistance is strong. Yet other Europeans have to work even longer,” says an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung. Germans believe the French are “not reasonable,” asking: How can we deny the aging of our population? How can we refuse to work for two more years? You can sense a feeling of injustice expressed in the tone of voice.
The German pundits reluctantly concede that any comparison can only ever be superficial: “In other countries, the context is different. In Germany, for example, the birth rates are lower than in France. And just because the situation is worse in other countries doesn’t mean it’s not bad in France,” says a person interviewed by the German paper. The Germans reveal their blind spots when it comes to retirement and gender equality (which is worse than in France) and the dramatic level of poverty among seniors (especially women).
These countries’ social models differ, as do their retirement systems, how they fund pensions, their social demographics and how their society views work. Because of this, the foreign media covering France is, by nature, limited. But it speaks volumes to their view of work…
Translated by Rozena Crossman
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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