Grass no greener in Gaul

Joshua Jampol

1 December 2002

HR problems getting you down? A look north may cheer you up.

Riding the tiger in tough times is hard anywhere. But play it smart and you can cheat the downturn. Whether France, Inc. is making the right moves is debatable.

To survive a crisis, business gurus say, redefine yourself. This country’s job market is doing just that. A bipolar hiring mart used to exist here. You were either in work or inactive; there was no third way. But France’s new employment environment now boasts more of a continuum: short-term contracts, open contracts, unemployment-plus-work packages, independent workers – the list goes on.

Unfortunately, these inspirations are mainly worker-driven. For like globalization, the shifting job market is moving faster than companies’ ability to adapt. Instead of building around staffers’ more personal experiences, not all firms have been able to imagine the new forms of worker integration required. Result: they lag behind.

The young are hardest hit by the new deal. Despite a salary earthquake, first-time job seekers are finding their return on investment (education to career) woefully disappointing (box). Their despair has penetrated all levels and is now a main feature of the landscape.

One normally reliable tool to outlast a recession is investment in people. Talent comes cheaper; good staff can be had for less. “Bad times need fresh ideas. Companies should invest in talent and people, not only when they have money and when times are rosy,” counsels Dominique Turpin, former MBA director at IMD. The problem is, France has seen a net depreciation in the value of work. “Work worth” is an endangered species here; employees have lost self-esteem.

[*D The one way firms have reacted to the new order is by promising “employability,” where they once offered “careers.” *]Figures from Insee, France’s statistics institute, already showed in 1997 that only 27 percent of the nation believed work constituted an important element of happiness. Forty-three percent of those responding were manual laborers; 38 percent were under 35 years old.

The one way firms have reacted to the new order is by promising “employability,” where they once offered “careers.” This has forced workers to become multi-functional in order to survive. Where they had one task years ago, they perform several today. “It’s the company’s responsibility to defend a worker’s employability, not defend his job,” notes Michel Robin, president-director general of Siemens France. This, so workers can eventually obtain training for other posts – either inside the same company or elsewhere.

Is the strategy successful? “Workers don’t seem to know where they are anymore,” notes Daniel Cohen, economics professor at l’Ecole Normale Superieure and the Sorbonne. “It’s management by stress. If the nation was neurotic before, its workers are depressive today.” Between 1967 and 1987, the consensus among Gaul’s labor force was that they were living in an economic crisis. This has evolved into the “malaise” that CEOs openly describe today - despite the fact that France has never created as many jobs as it has since 1987. The Internet has helped, introducing the myth of “work less and sell more.” Other decidedly Gallic ingredients have added to the recipe, such as a unique brand of hybrid capitalism, where the State is the privileged shareholder. But that is nothing new.

The coup de grâce seems to be the 35-hour workweek. A brainchild of the former leftist Jospin government, which was defeated at the polls last spring, it has degraded work, making employment no more than a compulsory passage between education and a period of full-time free time, obliterating drive, depriving many of any importance to what they do all day.

Some French dirigeants see this as positively pathological. Who else in Europe, they cry, has a law for 35 hours? Denis Kessler, vice-president of Medef, France’s management group, told 1,600 top CEOs at a meeting of the nation’s powerful Association for Progress in Management in February, “It’s incredible. It’s appalling. Promotion of leisure time becomes a public good, something acquired. The State is in effect saying, ‘Don’t work.’ The State should never say that.”

The old government claimed the 35-hour workweek trimmed unemployment, created flexibility among the workforce and lowered social charges. Still the malaise grew.

The last few months have seen unprecedented strikes by policemen and doctors, seriously compromising security and healthcare services. Then it was daycare center personnel – not counting, naturally, the sempiternal transport strikes, which froze 40 cities when, like last year, workers demanded – believe it or not – retirement at age 55. Nurses were next. Everyone, it seems, has become a functionary. Top CEOs know it, and do not hide their concern. Though the new, rightist government says it will “soften” and “modify” the 35-hour law, and raise limits on overtime, France, Inc. may still not be sending the right marketing or advertising message to motivate the national workforce. Her European neighbors seem not to share the same problem.

The gloom has eaten away at the merit of the CEO and entrepreneur, both now at a discount. Entrepreneurs must be risk managers. Laws may change, bombs may fall, defective products may hit the market, you may lose your reputation; there are 1,001 things you are not sheltered from. But with everyone in civil-servant mode, why take risks? Denis Kessler would like to see one of British Prime MinisterTony Blair’s ideas incorporated here. “Blair says, ‘People must love entrepreneurs like they love football players.’ That’s what we need. If not, I see France entering a long period of decline.”

Proactive firms, by fostering trust and commitment, can turn demotivated troops into productive and even cheerful players. The challenge for France, Inc. is how. While waiting, disaffected workers have instinctively turned to the traditional Gallic remedy: l’amour. Hotels report occupancy is way up - especially on Friday afternoons. Barred from working past 35 hours, and with more time on their hands, employees are frequenting that nearby lovenest, and with the colleague of their choice. Roads out of Paris used to jam up late Friday afternoons; you’d get stuck on a Thursday now. #

Professional career tracks desired by France’s young people, 2000

- Alternate periods of work with periods of training….80%
- Stay in the same company while performing different jobs…74%
- Change companies several times in my professional life…70%
- Work internationally…53%
- Stay in the same company while changing my place of residence…51%
- Alternate in-company contracts with independent work…42%
- Work all my life in the same company…38%

(source: Etude Lab’Ho-Scan, Adecco group, April 2000)


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