Why Jeb Bush Shouldn’t Have Mocked The French Work Week

Americans might benefit from a French-style schedule.

Ah, France, that favorite punching bag of the American Right.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) tried to kill two birds with one stone during Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate when he compared the Senate to a “French work week” in an awkwardly failed attack on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) attendance record. 

Even if his critique of Rubio didn’t land, at least he successfully zinged the French, right?

Not really. It is the kind of off-the-cuff epithet that may play well with some conservatives, but Bush got the details of France’s labor policy wrong. And more importantly, his entire premise is misguided: The U.S. could learn a thing or two from France about work-life balance.

"I mean, literally, the Senate -- what is it, like a French work week?" Bush asked Rubio. "You get, like, three days where you have to show up?"

First, the facts: France’s work week -- needless to say -- is not three days. In 2000, France’s government created a 35-hour work week with the goal of lowering unemployment. Employers can, and often do, ask workers to work more hours, as the BBC reported, but they must pay them overtime after 35 hours. 

(By contrast, the United States requires overtime pay for non-manager workers who work more than 40 hours a week. But even after a regulatory change by President Barack Obama goes into effect, half of the American workforce will be exempt from mandatory overtime.)

In practice, French people who are employed full time worked on average 40.5 hours per week, according to Eurostat -- not much less than the European Union average of 41.5 hours per week. By comparison, American full-time employees work an average of 47 hours every week, according to Gallup.

But throw in the most generous paid vacation policy in the developed world, and French workers -- including full- and part-time employees -- work fewer hours annually than workers in all but four of the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Still, that’s probably a good thing.

An OECD analysis found a strong correlation between the number of annual hours worked in a country and the incidence of premature death from 1970 to 2011, The Economist reported recently.

That statistic is not all that surprising considering how many medical problems are associated with excessive work. A European study concluded that people who work more than 11 hours a day are more than twice as likely to suffer a bout of depression lasting at least two weeks.

The OECD tracked the correlation between hours worked and premature mortality from 1970 to 2011.
The OECD tracked the correlation between hours worked and premature mortality from 1970 to 2011.

Americans put in 1,789 hours of work per year on average, compared with French workers' 1,473 hours. That means Americans work nearly 40 more eight-hour days a year than their French counterparts.

And while there are myriad factors driving average life expectancy in a country, France’s greater longevity than the United States' is consistent with this analysis. In France, average life expectancy is 82.3 years, according to the OECD, compared with 78.8 in the U.S.

Even average life expectancy at age 65, a figure that filters out the impact of infant mortality rates and other variables, is higher in France than in the U.S. French 65-year-olds can expect to live to the age of 84.3, compared with 82.9 for Americans.

What’s more, there is no evidence that the French work schedule is hindering productivity.

In fact, French workers generated more gross domestic product per hour than, among others, British, Swiss, Swedish and Austrian workers -- all of whom work more hours per week, according to data collected by the OECD. They also out-produced Danish and German workers, who work fewer hours per week.

Admittedly, France trails the work-crazed United States in productivity, but only by a mere $3 per hour worked.

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