October 15, 2021

"The French don't work enough": news or fake news ? Franco-German comparison and cultural explanation

Countries and regions

The image of the Frenchman always on strike or on vacation is regularly sent back from abroad and invites us to dig into the subject. Do the French work enough?

He had stated this on several occasions since the beginning of his mandate. On Tuesday, October 12, during the presentation of his "France 2030" investment plan, President Emmanuel Macron repeated it:

"When you compare, we are a country that works less than others in quantity."

This assertion, which echoes the images regularly sent back from abroad of the Frenchman always on strike or on vacation, invites us to dig deeper into the subject and to compare France on this point to other European countries and especially to one of them, regularly cited as a model: Germany.


Several findings:

The figures reveal a contrasting reality

Diving into the statistics, we learn that the situation varies significantly by category, and depending on whether we are interested in weekly working time or its duration over a lifetime. According to an analysis published by Dares (Direction de l'animation de la recherche, des études et des statistiques au Ministère du Travail) in June 2018 on data from 2016, the usual weekly working time of employees, all categories included, is 36.3 hours in France, close to the European average (36.4), where Germany (34.8), Denmark (32.3) and the Netherlands (29.3) have lower durations. So are we working harder in France than in the countries of Northern Europe?

Not so simple. The average duration quoted here includes all types of contracts, including part-time contracts, which are culturally much more common in these countries. If we focus on full-time contracts, France, with 39.1 hours per week, falls slightly below the European average (40.3 hours) and Germany (40.4 hours).

But the situation is reversed again if we look at certain categories of people such as managers (43.1 hours per week), or self-employed workers (45.3 hours), who work more hours per week in France than the European average.


There is, however, one data point on which France does much less well than its neighbors, and on which the President of the Republic seems to rely in his assertion: the annual volume of hours worked in relation to the total population. No, it is not our famous vacations, our days of RTT... and strikes that are the reason, but a smaller number of active people in the whole population. This is due to the fact that young people enter the labor market later and, above all, that older people leave the labor market earlier. In relation to the whole population (from babies to the elderly), France is in 2019 with 630 hours worked per capita and per year (against 722 in Germany and 1000 in South Korea) the OECD country where this figure is the lowest.

In summary, French people who work do so as much as in other countries, but French people work less over their lifetime.

In our perceptions, we always work harder than our neighbor

This is true in the Franco-German context. The first reason for this difference in perception is the different working hours. The French often stay later, the Germans start earlier. As a result, everyone has the impression that they are not equally committed to their work. When the German tries to reach his French colleague early in the morning, his call will go unanswered. In the evening, on the other hand, the German becomes unreachable. Compared to my frame of reference, I have the feeling that the other is not as committed.


The second reason is different labor laws. For an equivalent position, a French person can have the status of a manager and be on a fixed day rate allowing a certain flexibility in working hours, whereas his German counterpart will not and will have to count his hours. The French concept of "cadre" covers a much broader population than that of "leitende Angestellte" in Germany.

The German Working Time Act sets the maximum working time at 8 hours per working day, which can be extended to 10 hours per day in very specific cases. However, like all laws in Germany, it is scrupulously respected. In any case, the Labor Inspectorate keeps a close eye on the situation, as well as the very powerful Betriebsrat (Works Council), an employee representative body with many powers that the French IRPs would only dream of.

Last but not least, if French managers tend, with 43.1 hours per week on average, to spend a little more time in the office than their German counterparts, there is a cultural explanation.

Comparison between the german and french Cultural Profile


More focused on personal relationships, the French, like their southern European neighbors, feel the need to create interpersonal links to better collaborate. This leads to an appetite for coffee breaks, informal discussions, and above all, the sacrosanct lunch break, during which our German colleagues naturally find nothing better than to schedule meetings for us! It must be said that they finished eating a long time ago, as meals are taken earlier in Germany. And they don't understand that we can spend so much time eating. As if that was all it was about...

The relationship to hierarchy also plays an important role. Contrary to preconceived ideas on this side of the Rhine, studies conducted by sociologists of interculturality (Hofstede in particular) reveal that it is strongest in France, which can lead to a phenomenon of "presenteeism" among certain employees: the feeling of having to be present and available for one's hierarchy. This is much less true in Germany, where managers are expected to provide a detailed framework of job expectations in relation to the employee's working time. If tasks are added along the way, it will be necessary to agree together to remove others so as not to exceed the weekly working time. This approach - a precise dosage of the workload according to the hours worked - is conducive to part-time work, which is very popular with mothers of school-age children. In Germany, school is in the morning.

The phenomena described here are of course tending to evolve with the new generations, who are less hierarchical than their elders and more attentive to the work-life balance. Above all, the rise of teleworking as a result of the Covid crisis is upsetting these logics since, in essence, it reduces informal exchanges to the canteen and the coffee machine (even if we are not lacking in ingenuity to imagine virtual alternatives).


It will therefore be interesting to take stock in a few years' time to monitor these developments and to see whether or not it can be said in the future that the French do not work enough.

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