Do French Pension Protests Reveal a Lazy Nation?Roundup
tags: welfare state, French history, Protest, pensions, General Strikes
Robert Zaretsky is a historian and the author of, most recently, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
France has been gripped recently by a wave of strikes and demonstrations — protesters old and young, rural and urban, progressive and conservative, blue and white collar, all taking to the streets to protest their government’s effort to nudge the retirement age from 62 to 64.
It all seems so déjà vu. Yet, as trade unions and political parties mobilize for a new and perhaps greater wave of strikes on Tuesday, 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?
Statistical tables offer one startling answer. Though the aggregate productivity of French workers is slightly lower than that of American workers, it is dramatically higher than that of their European peers. In fact, it is higher than the G7 average. Moreover, the French give the lie to popular tropes — and their country’s legally mandated 35-hour workweek — by working more hours per week than do their famously industrious German counterparts.
Yet cultural inflection points suggest another but no less startling answer. Yes, the French are also lazy. It’s just not in the way we lazily think.
Consider Michel de Montaigne, who in 1571, fed up with his job as a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux, quit at the age of 38. Retreating to his library, he inscribed his reason on the wall of his study. “Weary of the servitude of the courts,” Montaigne declared, “I am determined to retire in order to spend what little remains of my life, now more than half run out … consecrated to my freedom, tranquillity, and leisure.”
He went on to invent an entirely new kind of writing — the essay — by which he launched an extraordinary experiment in self-examination. Yet he experimented lazily. “I have to solicit it nonchalantly,” he wrote about his memory. “What I do easily and naturally I can no longer do if I order myself to do it by strict and express command,” he wrote. For the man who transformed our way of reading and writing, he was seriously unserious. “If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there.” He added: “I do nothing without gaiety.”
A few centuries later, a fellow Frenchman proved equally industrious when it came to laziness. The radical thinker Paul Lafargue is famous today for a pamphlet published in 1880: “The Right to be Lazy.” Not surprisingly, then, that he depended on the financial support of someone else: Friedrich Engels, who did the same for Lafargue’s father-in-law, Karl Marx.
In an odd twist, Lafargue kept running out of money or being run into prison because he was busy making the case for the worker’s right to be lazy. Our natural state, he argued, is leisure. Yet industrialists and ideologues, to enjoy lives of ease, had inculcated in the rest of us the belief in the “right to work.”