We were in line to pay for our portions of the meal. It was in Grenoble and many of my native French companions had opted for raclettes, the delicious and hearty mountain food of the Alps. I wanted to encounter Savoyarde cuisine a bit more “head on” and opted for tete-de-veau. As the guest in front of me paid, she ripped off a sequence of cheques, each denominated in 10€. My eyes drifted to the bottom of the cheque: it read “cheque vacance.” I made the mental connection, and then incredulous, I started laughing. “Quoi?” my friend nudged. “You…you…you people get money to go on vacation?” I queried. Julien laughed, “Oui, mon ami.” As we got into the car to drive back to Paris after a weekend of skiing, I made a note in my journal: “Hunt down all French work benefits.” That was almost two years ago, and it’s high time I finally shared my findings with you. Americans, please take a seat. You’re not going to believe this.
I’ve divided the benefits into two categories. There are the benefits that are required by law, which everyone gets, and there are those “optional” benefits which are only provided by certain companies. I’m going to leave aside the discussion of cadre/non-cadre as well as CDD vs. CDI for another time. I just want to focus on benefits.
Standard Benefits (required by law)
RTT (Réduction du Temps de Travail)
Everyone knows about the 35-hour work week, but what you don’t know is that the French are required to be compensated for the time they work beyond those 35 hours, and that comes out to a minimum of 2.5 days per month, every month of the year, at most large companies for those on a CDI. That adds up to 30 days per year using that accounting – though some have told me they get as “few” as 10 days per year as they are only on the clock for 38,5 hours per week.
CP (Congés Payés)
Everyone is required, after the first year of work, to be provided with an additional five weeks of paid vacation per year. If you add the RTT and CP, you can begin to understand why the entire country is gone from roughly July 15-September 1st, and still has leftovers for personal vacations in the Winter and Spring.
The National Holidays were actually more numerous before the disestablishment of the Catholic Church (“holiday” is simply an elision of “Holy Day”) and because Napoleon wanted to show his power over the Church, in the Condordat he signed with Pope Pius VII in 1801, he suppressed a number of ancient feast days. So, the number of national holidays would be even higher if it weren’t for Napoleon, who had a bit of a workaholic streak in him. As it is, the national holidays of France, long called “bank holidays” in England, to commemorate that country’s true religion, finance, include:
The Circumcision (January 1st)
Labor Day (May 1st)
V-E Day (May 8th)
The Assumption (August 15th)
All Saints (November 1st)
Armistice Day (November 11th)
Christmas (December 25th)
If you were keeping track, that’s 11 days. For a so-called secular state, the French do keep an overwhelming majority of ancient Catholic feast days, with only one “commemoration” of bloodthirsty revolution. I suppose you could count Armistice Day and V-E Days as commemorations of the wars that democracy gave us.
Public Transport subsidy
If you take public transportation to work, your employer must subsidize at least 50% of the cost of your pass.
I couldn’t get a clear answer on the exact amounts, but you get vouchers called “ticket restaurant,” which are a 50/50 split between you and your employer. This means if you get a series of 10€ daily vouchers, you have contributed 5€ and your employer has matched 5€, making for 10€. Some, like my friend Adam, get as much as 19€/day, and keep in mind, you aren’t limited to buying lunch only with those vouchers: you can use them for grocery shopping. There is some movement away from the vouchers into an electronic debit card-based system (to prevent hoarding and mass-cashing at the end of the year), but that will take a while.
American reaction: “You get free money!”
French response (glumly, with a frown): “Yeah, we pay half.”
American glares at French person.
French person shrugs, repeats and says, “What, it’s true!”
If you wish to take classes or training, possibly even training to change your career and quit your current job, your employer has to pause your job and allow you to take those classes. Your employer may refuse twice, but may not refuse if you request a third time.
Compte Professionnel de Formation (formerly droit individuel à la formation)
You earn points in a personal account even via part-time work. You can use these points towards paid training and certifications either in your career or to change careers. These points do not expire and belong to you, not your employer.
Wait, there’s more: Maternity and Paternity Leave
French women are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and French men are entitled to 11 days of paid paternity leave, though the French men are having to be encouraged to use this benefit as its culturally quite new.
Life Days Off (yes, more vacation)
If you get married, you are entitled to 4 days off, if you get into a civil union, you can get 1 day off. If there is a death in your direct family (spouse or children), you can get 2 days off. If one of your children is getting married, you can get one day off.
Mutuelle (because inexpensive health care wasn’t good enough)
Beginning this year, the Mutuelle, which was a paid private plan you could acquire (from a number of different companies) to make up the balance of payments of the 30% of medical costs you often handle (the State takes on 70%) now has to be provided for you by your employer. So that bit of health care you did have to pay for? That’s been taken care of as well.
Optional Benefits (yeah, there’s even more)
So, some companies pay you for a “13th month” each year. The purpose? So you don’t have to set aside savings to pay for your taxes.
You heard about this already – this kicked off the idea for this article years ago.
Well, because at Christmastime, you can’t actually be expected to pull from your savings to buy gifts. Grab your chequebook, with 10-15 cheques denominated in, you guessed it, 10€ increments.
If you have at least 50 employees, this is required and .2% of the company wages must be diverted to fund the benefits it provides, which includes discounted movie and theater tickets, among other things. Smaller companies do not necessarily have this.
* * *
So, whenever I begin to catalogue this list of benefits to the French, I get some silly speech about how they “fought” for these “rights” and that they have been “earned.” This is, of course, absurd. No one has a “right” to a job. Those of us who have actually signed the front of a paycheck, not just the back, know that. These laws are coercive measures that are leveled by the French government on companies that do business in France. It is to maintain a standard of living in this magnificent jewel of a country. The only price? Innovation.
The reason that the US and other countries so far outdistance not just France, but Europe, in innovation, is because startups are allowed to figure life out before they are yoked with the duties of taxation. France, as the laws are currently construed, is a fundamentally anti-business country. There is no balance whatsoever – it is all about the responsibilities and obligations of the employers, which must take all the risk, while the State and the citizens/employees are completely shielded. This is not real life. This is the artificial reality created in France.
What do the French retain in exchange for losing the ability to innovate at the speed of the internet? Stability. The French have a really good life, thank you very much, and they don’t care if they aren’t keeping up with the rest of the world. And that’s what those of us who come to this country to make our lives are fundamentally at peace with: the unbelievable burden carried solely by the private sector of the French economy is the price that is paid to have such a good life. No one forces these French companies to stay here – they can leave and go anytime they want – and the young French don’t have to create companies here – they can go to the US or other friendlier climes. This isn’t to say that there is no startup scene here in France. There is – it’s exciting – and I’ve been pleased and privileged to work with and interact with some of these startups in the guise of my own small French startup. These French are earnest about the opportunities, okay with the lack of a safety net, and grateful for the flexibility that the startup universe offers. But they face challenges they simply would not have to face in America – and it slows them down.
But that’s the question at the heart of this: is speed what you’re after? If so, then France isn’t for you, anyway. Come here for stability, tradition, and pride. But let’s be clear: these benefits cannot reasonably be construed into a narrative of “rights” that were “earned.” It’s a ransom that is extorted. It is paid perhaps reluctantly, but it is paid, nonetheless. Because life really is that good here, despite all the hassles, paperwork, and these days, bombs and bullets.
The photo was taken at the hottest times of the protests against the new reform of labor laws this year, back in May. That was, of course, before severe flooding prematurely dampened the resolve of people complaining about gold-plated privileges they never earned and consider “rights.”