Are French people lazy?

The pension reform in France has opened debate about the place that work occupies in our lives, and renewed interest in the book ‘The Right to Be Lazy’ by Paul Lafargue

Students protest France's plans to raise the retirement age in Lyon, on March 9.
Students protest France's plans to raise the retirement age in Lyon, on March 9.Laurent Cipriani (Associated Press/LaPresse)

Are French people lazy? The answer to this question is quick and simple: no. Or no more or less lazy than Americans, Spaniards or Canadians.

But it’s a question that popped up in France a few months ago after Green deputy Sandrine Rousseau argued for “the right to laziness.” Rousseau was citing a classic 1880 book called The Right to Be Lazy by Paul Lafargue, a pioneer of socialism and the son-in-law of Karl Marx. In the book, Lafargue dreamed of the day when we would only work “three hours a day” and when “work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness.”

This idea has returned to the fore due to the debate over pension reform, which French President Emmanuel Macron passed by decree last week. The measure, which raises the retirement age from 62 to 64, has been widely rejected by French society, leading to some of the biggest protests the country has seen in decades. Before Macron decided to push the bill through using his constitutional power, there was a highly technical debate between the plan’s supporters (the government and a part of the moderate right) and its critics (the rest of the political spectrum and the unions). But the discussion can be summed up this way: should French people work harder to be able to pay for the public pension system? Or is forcing them to extend their working life (an extension that, in the case of some trades, can be harmful to health and unfair) unnecessary, since what is really important is reconsidering our obsession with work?

This is where Lafargue comes into play. It is worth quoting the opening paragraph of The Right to Be Lazy: “A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work.”

It could be argued that the nineteenth-century philosopher was attacking a value fundamental not only to this civilization and to capitalism, but also to the labor movement. But another reading can also be made: the book is not so much about abolishing work as it is about questioning the place it occupies in our lives.

Perhaps what Lafargue was expressing, and what opponents of the pension plan are doing, is outlining a way to reinvent work: its duration, conditions and quality.

It is a very French debate — one that dates back to 1936, when the Popular Front instituted the 40-hour week and the generalization of paid holidays. And that came up again in 2000, when then-French prime minister Lionel Jospin adopted the 35-hour workweek.

At a Paris demonstration on Tuesday, it was disconcerting to see students barely out of their teens bellowing against having to work for two more years when they’re 62 years old. It’s easy to be condescending of a country that has mobilized almost en bloc to protest a measure that neighboring countries adopted years ago.

These French people, they’re so ... lazy? Let’s go back to Lafargue. What he lamented was the exact opposite: the French people’s addiction to work. For him, the example to follow (and the butt of his jokes) was a country that, in his opinion, had not yet tamed its instinct for idleness: Spain. “For the Spaniard, in whom the primitive animal has not been atrophied, work is the worst sort of slavery,” he wrote. It’s always others who are lazy.

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