Do the French Do More With Less?

How does France’s economy survive with a 35-hour week — and lots of holidays?

April 25, 2002

How does France's economy survive with a 35-hour week — and lots of holidays?

In recent years, Americans have become extremely health-conscious. They exercise, diet — and generally try to stay away from high-fat, high-cholesterol foods.

Many people in the United States also do not smoke and abstain from alcohol and caffeine. But it doesn’t seem to work. On a life-expectancy chart used by the World Health Organization, Americans rank an embarrassing 24th on the scale.

By contrast, the stereotypical French citizen sits all day at a café, drinking strong coffee with sugar and eating buttered croissants. And if they’re not puffing away on cigarettes themselves, the French get plenty of second-hand smoke from other patrons in their legendary bistros — which serve up a delicious cuisine based on meat and butter.

Based on that evidence, you might expect the French to be dropping like flies. But, statistically, the French are slimmer than Americans — and they also manage to live longer and healthier lives.

On the same life-expectancy scale developed by the WHO, France scored third — behind only Japan and Australia. Life expectancy in France is 3.5 years longer than in the United States — 78 years vs. 75.5 years.

So what is the secret of their longevity? Red wine appears to be one factor. France is the global leader in per capita consumption of wine, drinking a whopping 60 liters of it per person every year.

Scientific tests consistently have shown that red wine is effective in reducing cholesterol levels and preventing heart disease.

In fact, researchers originally developed the idea that wine might be good for you by studying the French region of Perigord — the center of foie gras production.

Despite consuming large portions of cholesterol-laden goose liver, the residents of Perigord don’t suffer disproportionately from clogged arteries.

And the French have plenty of time on their hands to enjoy their vin. In fact, their leisure keeps increasing. In an effort to cut unemployment, the French government introduced a mandatory 35-hour work week in the late 1990s — with no reduction in pay.

This compares to the average U.S. work week of a hefty 44 hours — 21% more than in France.

In fact, Americans work 1,956 hours per year, compared to 1,604 hours worked by the French. Workers in the United States also get less vacation — a paltry 23 days compared to 35 days in France.

Since they work nearly 21% less hours every week than Americans, the French must be poorer, right? Well, French monthly wages are some 20% lower than U.S. wages in U.S. dollar terms.

However, such measures are notoriously unreliable and depend crucially on currency fluctuations. For example, the euro lost around a third of its value since it was introduced in 1999. In fact, French wages measured in dollar terms have dropped by only 10% since 1998.

It makes much more sense to look at labor productivity. On a per-worker basis, the United States still leads France. However, on a per-hour basis, the French are in the lead.

Between 1997 and 2000, French hourly productivity grew by 2.4% per year — compared to a 0.8% level of growth from 1990 to 1997.

On the other hand, per-worker productivity growth in the United States which officials — including Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan — have been bragging about looks much less impressive when adjusted for a massive increase in hours worked.

Since the 1950s, when Americans tended to work less than the Europeans, Western Europe in general has emphasized per hour productivity growth, resulting in a potentially much more efficient economy. Not to mention a vastly superior quality of life.

Perhaps hard-working Americans can learn a little something about the good life — and how to take time to enjoy it — from their French counterparts.