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Are the French a bunch of lazy slackers?

Reuters/Robert Pratta

The French - if they’re not on strike, they’re taking long holidays or having extra days off thanks to the 35-hour week. That’s a widespread view, as can be seen from comments on RFI’s reports of the strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms. But do the statistics bear it out?

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No-one could deny that France has a combative labour movement, especially when right-wing parties are in power and, as the unions see it, trying to take back gains won by years of struggle.

 

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

And international media headlines often give the impression of a country wracked by industrial conflict, which must surely be bringing the economy to its knees.

So is France heading for ruin – a world champion in strikes and lazing around and a world loser in wealth production?

Here’s what the figures show:

Strikes: The world leader in days lost in strikes in 2009 was … Canada. Its score was 2.2 million, according to the UK journal The Economist. Next came South Africa with 1.5 million. France came third with 1.4 million. France comes top of the European league table for the period 2005-2009, according to the European Foundation for the improvement of Living and Working Conditions. But in 2008 its efforts were dwarfed by Denmark, thanks to a strike wave, one of whose demands was a 35-hour working week. The damage to the economy is not as high as might be expected, judging by statistics from 2005 when a three-week strike cut 0.05 of a point from the growth rate, according to the Finance Ministry.

Hours worked: French workers work an average of 1,453 hours a year, well below the OECD group of developed nations' average of just over 1,700 hours a year but above Germany and Norway (1,337), Sweden (1316) and the Netherlands (1309). South Koreans work the longest hours in the OECD at 2,390 per year.

Retirement: At present French women can retire at the same age as women in Italy, South Korea, Hungary, the UK, Greece and Poland but earlier than Turks and Czechs. Men have the lowest minimum retirement age in the OECD. The government's proposals will bring them in line with Czechs and Hungarians and raise the age that retirees can claim the full pension to 67, provided they have paid over 40 years of contributions.

GDP: France’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled in the last 20 years. It was over 2000 billion euros in 2009, according to the IMF and the World Bank. That puts it fifth in the world league table, behind the US, Japan, China and Germany and just ahead of the UK. Over the same period, there has been a 10 per cent shift of the share of GDP from salaries to profits.

Productivity: French workers’ productivity has risen five times since 1960. Although it has fallen slightly over the last two years thanks to the recession, it is expected to double again over the next 20 years. GDP per hour worked is lower than in the US and Ireland but higher than in many countries, including the UK, Germany and Japan.

 
Debt: France has the sixth highest public deficit in Europe in percentage terms, at 8.2 per cent. The US’s deficit reached 12.5 per cent in 2009. The debt of French households was 89.1 per cent of income in 2006, according to the OECD. In Britain and the United States that ratio stood at 168.5 percent and 139.7 percent respectively.
 

Unemployment: French unemployment stands at 10 per cent, the average for the eurozone. As in other industrialised countries, the figure has been pushed up by the recession but was already relatively high at 8.2 per cent in 2001. US unemployment stood at 9.6 per cent in June 2010.

 

Click here for RFI's "Hidden Paris" series. Part I - How a leafy Paris boulevard came to be named after a left-wing extremist

 

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