Merde alors! Why French workers are more productive than Brits

Photo: Gabor/MorgueFile.com Photo: Gabor/MorgueFile.com

The French work smarter and have a more productive workforce than Britain. But there’s a sting in the tail: fewer jobs for young and old alike.

In the UK, we’re brought up to think of French workers as, at best laid back, if not downright lazy. The old stereotypes – many of them themselves lazy – persist: France is the land of the long lunch, the Friday midday finish, month-long holidays, inexplicably closed shops and businesses, wildcat strikes and, of course, the legendary 35-hour working week.

So it may be a shock to many Brits to learn that French workers are actually a lot more productive than we are. Worse still, this is nothing new and the gap is getting wider. French workers may not put in as many hours, and they certainly take more holidays, but they get more done while they’re there. Or at least the value of the work they do is higher. In economic language, their productivity is higher.

And by quite a bit. According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, productivity per hour worked was 27% higher in France than in the UK. Over the last 20 years, French workers have been, on average, 20%, more productive.

What this means is that, for each hour they work, the average French worker is producing around €46 worth of stuff (“output”), compared to €36 worth for an average British worker. Or to put it another way, if a British worker has to work from nine to five to get a job done, an equivalent French worker would have it wrapped up and be in the pub by 3.30pm.

Far from being the inefficient layabouts of legend, the French are on a par with the supposedly industrious Germans and not far behind the workaholic Yanks. How did that happen?

Firstly, working shorter hours, French workers simply have to be more productive while they’re in work. They may be less tired and may have more time to deal with family and personal problems which might otherwise distract them from work. They may suffer from less burn-out and stress, and have more free time to acquire skills that make them more productive.

In France, much less premium is placed on “burning the midnight oil” than in Britain, even among senior managers. (I once worked for a firm in England where it was very important to be seen to be working late; people often left their jackets over their chairs and went off for a walk or to play pool to use up the time). French workers tend to focus on getting the job done and getting home, rather than working late to impress bosses who will probably have already gone home anyway.

Quite simply, France has fewer workers who are either clapped out, or who don’t yet know their arse from their elbow.

But this story has a darker side. Unemployment is much higher in France than in the UK or the US, and has been for many years. With high productivity, French firms simply need fewer people (or fewer hours from them) to do the same work. In once sense, all these productive French workers are doing their unemployed concitoyens no favours at all.

With unemployment around 10% in France, compared to around 6% in the UK, the bigger pool of unemployed people in France is likely to include more unskilled and unproductive people. So, the smaller French labour force is likely to contain a higher proportion of skilled and creative people (because employers simply have more choice).

The least productive tend to be younger workers, who lack skills and experience, and older workers, whose skills and experience are more likely to be obsolete. Figures from the always-thorough OECD show that just over a quarter of young people (aged 15-24) were working in France in 2014, compared to almost 50% in the UK. Among older people (aged 55 to 64), only 47% are working in France; in the UK the figure is 61%. Quite simply, France has fewer workers who are either clapped out, or who don’t yet know their arse from their elbow.

While it’s harder to get a job in France, it’s also harder to lose one. Because French workers have more protection from the sack,  employers are more cautious about taking people on in the first place. And because it’s harder to get a job in France, workers tend to be more loyal and stick around for longer, which makes employers more willing to invest in training them. As a result, French workers are likely to have higher skills levels and be more experienced than their British counterparts.

Photo: Gabor/MorgueFile.com
Photo: Gabor/MorgueFile.com

One of the reasons the productivity gap between Britain and France has persisted for so long is that productivity is as much a matter of culture as of economic policy. As The Economist said back in March, “productivity is rather mysterious, but the best bet for boosting it is to invest in skills and infrastructure.”

The Economist, they should know, right? So I looked up the IMF’s figures for investment as a percentage of national income (or “GDP”) and, sure enough, France does invest more than most other industrialised countries – some 22% of national income in 2014, significantly more than Germany (18%) or America (20%).

And far more than Britain, which invested just 15% of national income last year. In economic terms that’s a huge difference (The Economist described British investment levels as “paltry”). For every £1 we invest, French firms or the government invest £1.50. It’s as if French graphic designers are working with a brand new Mac, while British ones have to get by with a two-year old second-hand model. French boulangers get to use a Tibiletti gas oven, capable of cooking 216 baguettes, while British bakers have to make do with a cheaper electric oven which produces only 144. A French consultancy firm might be able to send six staff to study for an MBA while a British rival only sends four. Who’s likely to be more productive?

This ripples across the economy in less tangible ways, with all French workers (and their employers) enjoying the benefit of higher investment in things like transport, WiFi networks, waste management and healthcare.

But (and there’s always a but in economics), one of the reasons France invests more is that labour is relatively expensive. Unable to rely on an big pool of cheap labour like British employers, French firms are forced to invest more in capital equipment and training to make the (expensive) workers they do have more productive. So, there’s a something of a trade-off between a high-investment, high-productivity economy with high unemployment, like France, and a relatively low-investment, low-productivity economy like the UK, which has relatively low unemployment.

You don’t hear much about all this because right-wing economic commentators spend so much of their time telling us that France does everything wrong. With high levels of social protection, high taxes and extensive state involvement, France’s economy should be a basket case. But it isn’t. It’s long-run economic performance is similar to Britain’s; apart from a brief period in the noughties, the two countries’ living standards have been locked closely together for decades.

French workers may not be working harder or longer than Brits, but they certainly seem to be working smarter. This means they can work shorter hours and get higher wages, but at the price of leaving substantial numbers of French people on the dole. As France shows, there are different routes to similar levels of economic performance; it all depends what sort of society you want and what sacrifices you’re willing to make.

UPDATE: 22 SEPTEMBER 2015

The gap between French and British productivity widened to 32% in 2014, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. This was Britain’s worst productivity performance compared to the rest of the G7 since the ONS began collecting comparative figures in 1991.

Read more here.