It's 2:15 on a French afternoon, and I am as usual at this time of day sitting in a cafe waiting to pay the bill for lunch. And waiting. And waiting. When you hear talk of the slowness of French meals, you may imagine haughty waiters languidly presenting an elegant meal. I am sure that happens too. But as it happens, I am not anywhere elegant. I am sitting in a very unremarkable seafood restaurant by the harbour in Dieppe.
There is nothing languid about the scene here. The patronne is racing about like a demon, taking orders, slapping down plates of fish, planting bottles of wine on the table with a thump.
She has to move fast. There are almost 30 tables in this place, and she has only one assistant. The two of them do everything that must be done in the front room. They clear tables, they bus dishes and, if you look at the mirror at the right angle, you can see them scraping plates and placing them in a dishwashing machine. At the moment when I decide I want a cheque, the assistant is at the back polishing newly washed glasses.
Why only two? The minimum wage in France is €8.50. Another €4.25 in payroll tax is applied on top of that wage, for a total minimum cost of hiring of €12.75, or more than $18.35 Canadian.
The law forbids employees to work more than 35 hours per week. Period. No overtime; it's just flatly forbidden. French law guarantees generous mandatory holidays of up to six weeks. Firing employees is extraordinarily difficult, so you have to assume that anyone you hire will stay hired until he or she tires of the job.
Understandably, then, French small businesses shave their staffs to the absolute bare minimum and work them at frenzied speed.
You might call this a form of efficiency. (Efficient for the restaurant, that is, not for me; I'd rather be touring the sights.) But it is a very strange form of efficiency for a country struggling against some of the severest unemployment in the developed world.
Per hours worked, the French rank among the most productive people on Earth: 7% more productive than Americans, for example. But the devil lies in the phrase "per hours worked."
Almost 10% of France's work force lacks jobs. France's economy is not in recession; in fact, it is thriving. High unemployment has become normal here; not since the 1980s has France seen an unemployment rate south of 8%.
And remember, the unemployment concept counts only those persons who seek work. Those who retire early, or who qualify as disabled, or remain in school until age 30 do not count as "unemployed" in the job statistics. Only in life. The truest picture of French society comes from counting those in work: Altogether, 51% of French adults work, as opposed to 62% of American adults.
And those French who do work do not work very much: While working Americans work an average of more than 1,800 hours per year, working French people put in slightly more than 1,500, more than their supposedly workaholic German counterparts, but less than the Swedes or Italians.
Some left-wing economists suggest that this low work effort reflects a laudable French preference for leisure over sordid commerce.
But that harried patronne in Dieppe did not seem to be enjoying much leisure. If it cost less to hire a worker, maybe she would have hired somebody to help her clear the dishes. Then she would have had time to wander over during lunch and ask me whether I would have liked a second glass of wine. But she was too busy, so the wine remained unpoured and the five euros she might have earned remain in my pocket.
Well, maybe I could afford to do without the extra wine. Can France afford to keep missing economic opportunities? The gross domestic product of the 60 million people of France now roughly equals that earned by the 35 million people of California (using purchasing power parity valuations for the dollar and the euro). Over time, little differences compound into big ones. The Democratic economist Robert Shapiro calculates that, if present trends persist, the average European will see his standard of living decline to about half that of the average American by 2025.
France's new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, has vowed to address these problems. He proposes to adjust the 35-hour maximum and has famously called on the French to "go back to work." Outsiders can easily misunderstand those words. The French are not lazy.
Those who work, work hard. But too many of them are legislated out of work by the laws meant to help them. It is those laws that must change if France is to thrive again--and if I am ever to get my cheque.