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France 2017
France’s Ridiculous Email Law

France has a history of doing its very best to keep companies from wanting to locate operations in the country. Now, in a bill that actually loosens some restrictions on employers, the country has still managed to take things up a notch. USA Today reports:

A new law that came into effect with the new year says that companies with more than 50 employees must give workers the “right to disconnect” from email, smartphones and other devices during negotiated hours.

“These measures are designed to ensure respect for rest periods and … balance between work and family and personal life,” a spokesperson from France’s ministry of labor said in a statement.

The regulations, though, contain several items that are designed to sharpen France’s workforce, which has been criticized as over-regulated and rigid in the face of globalization. Other measures include more flexibility on work rules and overtime as well as granting employers more power to hire and fire.

But they are also acknowledgement that recent technology has dealt a tremendous blow to the French way of life, which emphasizes enjoying time off and regulations that encourage a 35-hour workweek.

“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” Benoit Hamon of the French National Assembly told the BBC when the law was being mulled last year. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

The stress of emails is undeniable, but it’s difficult to imagine why, say, an investment bank or law firm would want to be located in a country where it couldn’t expect its employees to respond to urgent client emails after hours. Surely there are better solutions out there.

In the French presidential election, there’s been a lot of talk about front-runner François Fillon’s Thatcherism. This new law, which admittedly seems to have included the email provision in order to help the populace swallow difficult reforms, suggests that maybe the country isn’t, after all, very keen on Iron Lady-style economic liberalization. How much Fillon focuses on his business agenda and the reaction it receives at the polls are stories to watch over the next few months—particularly with Marine Le Pen looking for any and all weak spots in Fillon’s platform.

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  • lukelea

    Still, for the average working-class stiff, the law’s intent is in the right place.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Yes, and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions….

      I understand your sentiment here, but as someone who works in IT, this would stop me from EVER doing business with a company where the staff was located in France.

      • Jim__L

        What if they actually hired enough people on off-shifts to cover after-hours issues?

        • f1b0nacc1

          In principle, that isn’t a bad approach (and it is the underlying goal of legislation like this), but what happens when the individual that I am working with on a specific issue is ‘on break’ when a problem occurs? Then I have to bring someone new up to speed on an issue (and with the high level IT stuff – this isn’t desktop support I am talking about – that can be a tremendous problem), with all of the associated issues. Senior people do not grow on trees, and they are not simply interchangeable parts that can be swapped out when necessary. A lot of modern managers like to pretend that this is the case, but where the rubber meets the road, we discover that it rarely is.

          • Jim__L

            What you’re describing, my workplace calls the “bus list” — the list of people whose absence (if, say, they were hit by a bus) would sink the project.

            I suspect that a healthier regulation (if any is truly necessary here) would be to require companies to pay employees an “on call” differential, similar to a shift differential, or not call them on off-hours. For the truly essential, companies would be glad to pay it. For the truly interchangeable, they don’t get the hassle, or the pay.

          • f1b0nacc1

            We call it the “garbage truck syndrome”, but the principle is exactly the same. Personally I prefer the “F&*%^ked to death by Supermodels” list, but I suppose that wouldn’t be terribly PC (grin)….

            The key here is that in a large enough environment, there are probably ways to work around this problem, but (especially in IT, though I am sure other fields have similar issues), there are rarely enough resources to provide for fault tolerance. The truth of the matter is that with many specialized fields there simply aren’t enough people to provide useful backups under any circumstances, and unless you have a team supporting a given client issue (high end storage and data, for instance…where I have some direct experience), you are almost always going to have single points of failure (that ‘bus list’ again) that you simply cannot avoid.

          • ljgude

            Excellent discussion. I think this is a case of technology just changing the way we work. Because we can stay connected outside work hours to some extent that becomes inevitable and necessary. It can be limited by laws or conventions developed to cope with the resulting stress but it isn’t going to go away. I have a relative of the social media generation who has risen dramatically in the corporate world and have to say I am both impressed and appalled by the 24/7 engagement.

          • Ofer Imanuel

            Also in IT, and agree completely.

          • JR1123581321

            Not in IT, in finance. Agree completely. You need sector expertise, or else you are toast. World of finance is more and more real time, clients do not want to hear about your off time, they want their problem resolved. If you won’t, your competitor will….

          • f1b0nacc1

            And that is the bottom line…customers WILL go to where they get the service that they demand, the higher the stakes, the less tolerant that they will be. No amount of regulation of pious whinging from FG and his ilk are going to change that. When I have a critical storage system down, I don’t really care about the personal life or priorities of the one engineer who really understands what my environment looks like…I want answers, and if I am paying for them (and I am), I will not tolerate less than that.

    • FriendlyGoat

      People will have as many legal, social and civility rights as they legislate themselves to have in any country or all countries. One would think that those conservatives who are concerned about “family values” in France (or in the USA) would be absolutely on board with drawing some kind of boundaries around family “time”.

  • Eurydice

    How disciplined are the French, that they only use the internet for working purposes. My experience in the US is that it’s practically impossible to get employees to stop emailing, texting and using their smartphones on company time.

    • JR1123581321

      I know somebody who texts on company time. When I do… I mean, when that person does it, it is usually inside jokes. I mean, come on. You give me an iPhone and then you expect me to not use it. 🙂

  • Andrew Allison

    Could it possibly be that the French are stressed because they can’t do their jobs in 35 hours/week?

  • Bob Washburn

    France has had anti business employment laws for ages. Way back in 1975 my company fired its French country manager, who simply couldn’t do the job. French law require that the company paid him a salary for another year. That’s over 40 years ago.

  • PierrePendre

    All the big international law firms have Paris offices and young associates know that they enter a high-pressure, competitive environment that puts work ahead of any other consideration. Even so, the demands made on them can be abusive now that they are all on the end of a smart phone and reachable even on vacation. My daughter was one of the victims and it was no life. The private sector in France is as competitive and brutal as anywhere else and no one at white collar level works the famous 35 hour week (now much attenuated by self-attrition). It’s easy to mock the French obsession with regulation. As Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister once said, “this France; the state is never entirely absent.” But over-regulation contains its own safety valve in that there is too much of it to be enforced and workarounds abound, sometimes with the complicity of the regulators. My takeaway from my daughter’s experience wasn’t that French employees were reluctant to make the effort required but that big, rich companies cared more about their profits than having enough people to do the work.

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