French cheeses on a cheeseboard

French Food for Thought

France has some of the most employee-friendly employment laws in the western world. Among the most significant is the 35-hour week, which means that hours worked above that number are considered overtime and paid accordingly. There is also an upper limit on the number of hours of overtime that most employees can be expected to work. 

These were among the remarks made quite recently by an experienced practitioner, speaking at a recent event at the College of Law. He was quite correct. There was one thing, however, that he definitely got wrong. But he’s far from being the first American lawyer whom I’ve heard say this, and I’m fed up with hearing this mistake repeated. So listen up! 

The Error

The point to which I am referring is the false claim that, because of French employment laws, French companies are not competitive in international trade. 

That is completely false. Let’s look at the figures. In 2011, for example, France exported goods and services to the tune of $9,069.69 per head of population. By comparison, in the same year, the UK exported a total value of $7,634.76 per head, while the USA exported just $4,801.21 per capita. Estimates for 2014 paint a very similar picture. In other words, France has about double the success as an exporter that the USA enjoys. 

Yet Americans work much longer hours. In 2014, and taking account of part-time work, overtime, and vacations and holidays, the average working week in the USA was 34.40 hours long, compared to 32.25 hours in the UK and just 28.33 hours in France. So the French work, on average, nearly 18% less than Americans, and yet are about twice as successful in international trade. 

Why Such a Common Error?

If the statistics are so clear, they raise the question of why so many people, including educated lawyers trained to rely on evidence, choose instead to make an assumption that is patently false. I think there are probably two reasons: 

  1. Most Americans are simply unaware of how much they use and consume products made in France.
  2. Both American employees exhausting themselves during long working weeks and the employers demanding their pound of flesh need to be able to justify this situation. They therefore need to be able to stigmatize others, who work shorter hours, as lazy. In reality, however, this is more a manifestation of jealousy.

Mistaken Stereotypes

France, moreover, is no anomaly. Other countries with shorter average working weeks, like Germany, Sweden, and Norway, are also much more successful exporters than the US and UK. 

One irony here is particularly worth noting. Americans (and Brits) tend to stereotype the Germans as the epitome of hard-working, efficient capitalism. The exports figures bear out one part of this equation: in 2014, Germany is estimated to have exported goods and services worth $18,316 per head of population: double that of France and nearly four times that of the USA. Yet, out of all OECD countries, Germans have, on average, the shortest working week! 

Quality over Quantity

One thing that the false assumptions about France’s international competitiveness expose is that it is all too easy to fashion a whole world view from just one economic principle. But economics is not that simple. There are many moving parts in a nation’s — and the world’s — economy, and any meaningful economic analysis must attempt to address them all. Otherwise, as here, it will be worse than useless. 

The problem with assuming that a longer working week makes for greater competitiveness on the world stage is precisely that it ignores two other fundamentally important factors. The first is the productivity of the workforce: in other words, the volume of work produced by each person in any given period of time. The second is the quality of what is produced. 

It turns out that French and American workers have historically had very similar productivity rates. The difference, then, is in the quality of what is produced. 

This is not to say that Americans and American companies are incapable of producing quality items; that would be as fatuous a statement as the assumptions debunked here. What these statistics do mean is that, on average, the French produce higher quality items. 

Frankly, this should hardly come as a surprise. Someone working for a shorter period is much more likely to be on their game than someone who knows that s/he must work significantly longer hours. No doubt this is also a significant part of the explanation for the even greater success of the German economy. 

Lessons for Lawyers

There are two other lessons that lawyers can learn here. The first is that it is all too easy to make an assumption that happens to suit your own preconceived view of the world. But that is precisely when assumptions are at their most pernicious. 

Wise advocates audit their own arguments with even more rigor than that to which they expose their opponent’s. That way, there are no embarrassing surprises. Imagine what would happen if a trial lawyer attempted to rely on easily-disproved assumptions. The other side would have a field day! 

The second lesson is that working long hours every week, with limited vacation time, is more likely to reduce the quality of work produced than improve it. Working smarter, not harder, should be the mantra that law firms espouse. Instead, however, they typically expect their employees simply to pile up the billable hours. Apparently, they just prefer to go along with the words of the title of an old British sitcom: “Never mind the quality, feel the width!” 

Any laziness is thus unlikely to be found among those working shorter hours. Those people are probably working smarter. The lazy ones are those indulging in lazy assumptions.