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France Runs Despite 'Work Ethic' Concerns

Nicolas Sarkozy, France's new president, seems determined to change things. He complains that French people don't work enough and has plans to transform the country's approach to this aspect of life. Reporter Alice Furlaud, who lived in France for 25 years, weighs in on her surprise at the fact that the French elected a man with this agenda.

Monsieur Sarkozy is right: There is no work ethic in France. In fact, the Right to Idleness is so deeply ingrained in the French soul that I bet lots of people are already regretting their votes for this workaholic president.

When I lived in France, I was amazed that it could function so beautifully when I never saw anyone doing a lick of work. The only people I saw working were those in the restaurants and patisseries and boulangeries — and there, the bakers even have to get up early.

Having a job in France never seemed to mean actually doing a job. That must be the reason for those unhelpful salespeople in Paris shops. Why treat the customer as if she were always right when you have a job from which you couldn't be fired, even if you told the customer she looked hideous in that dress?

It's expensive to fire a worker, prohibitively so if you're a small business. You'll have to pay him or her a huge sum, or pension for life, or I don't know what.

One day I was standing in a long, unmoving line at a cashier's desk in the department store the Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville. The cashier was ignoring us and gossiping away with a salesperson. This gave me plenty of time to get to know the Frenchman behind me in line. I asked him why there was no French version of "I'll be right with you!" He told me that would acknowledge l'appel au travail — the call to work.

As a radio reporter I spent a lot of time at Radio France, the French national radio network. I'd arrive after a day of recording street demonstrations or stray cats, looking dishevelled and laden down with recording equipment. On my way to the studio I'd walk past miles of glass-fronted offices full of beautifully dressed people with, apparently, nothing to do. I was sure these loungers were saying "What has that stupid woman been doing, working?"

But somehow, without a work ethic, France has contrived to have the best universal health system, the best transportation system, and the cleverest and most charming people on earth. OK, maybe the Right Not to Work has not yet been added to the list of rights in the sacred Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789. But once the French see what Sarkozy actually does to this right, I hope they'll get out on the streets and fight for it.

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