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French bristle at Jeb Bush's 'French workweek' jab

LONDON — Bashing the country of Voltaire has long been a favorite pastime in American Republican politics.

The French were mocked as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" in 2003 for opposing the Iraq war, and French fries were renamed "Freedom Fries."

John Kerry, when he was the Democratic nominee competing with George W. Bush for the presidency, was rebuked for looking — Mon Dieu! — French.

And in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney was pilloried in an attack ad, titled "The French Connection," by his rival Newt Gingrich, for the sin of speaking French.

So it was perhaps no surprise in the Republican presidential debate Wednesday that Jeb Bush, seeking to revive his flagging candidacy, chided his rival and onetime protégé Marco Rubio for his lackluster attendance record in the Senate by comparing his work ethic to the French.

Grimacing with apparent mock horror, he said: "I mean, literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?"

The comments, predictably, did not go over well in France, where they were criticized for playing to a stereotype that, economists say and statistics show, is grossly exaggerated.

If the United States had a three-day workweek, "it would have left four days a week for Jeb Bush to educate himself," one person wrote on the website of the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, "And educating oneself is a good way to avoid saying too much nonsense."

The Bush comments also spurred a backlash on Twitter. "@JebBush U R just stupid. Your French bashing is ridiculous and so easy," wrote Audrey. "Make the World a favor: stay in your country, don't be elected!"

More than a decade after it was introduced, France's 35-hour workweek, coupled with ample vacations, social protections and a generous welfare state, has burnished an image of the French as not liking to work.

But while many French have resisted even the hint of changing the 35-hour workweek, they also acknowledge that the rule — which was intended to spur employment — never lived up to its promises.

Economists, too, say that the reality long ago surpassed the myth. Despite the symbolism of the 35-hour week for many French as a sign of the country's enviable work-life balance, many employers find ways to circumvent the law, including paying overtime at higher rates.

Full-time French workers last year put in an average of 38.9 hours a week, compared with the eurozone average of 39.6 hours a week, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

At the same time, labor productivity per hour last year in France was 14 percent higher than the European Union average, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office.

Alluding to the fact that the British lag in productivity compared with the French, even though Britain grew faster than any other country among the Group of 7 industrialized nations in 2014, the Economist recently noted, "The French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons do in a week."

Nevertheless, France's ruling Socialist party has been deeply reticent to change a law that some now regard as quintessentially French as pain au chocolat, and attempts to question the 35-hour workweek by the country's young economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, have sometimes spurred open rebellion.

In a sign of divisions within the Socialist party over how to balance worker protections against the need to spur growth in a sputtering economy, President François Hollande this year forced some economic changes in the lower house of Parliament, including provisions that would allow big stores in tourist areas to open on Sundays. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, a Socialist, had characterized the proposals as a "backward step for democracy."

Indeed, French workers expect strong protections from the state, and that goes beyond the 35-hour workweek. This month angry workers stormed Air France headquarters as senior managers were gathered to discuss plans to slash more than 2,900 jobs, literally ripping the shirts off the backs of executives. Several escaped by clambering over a fence.

Gallic sensibilities notwithstanding, the French can take comfort that so far the French-baiting of 2004 has been largely absent from this U.S. presidential campaign. Back then, Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader at the time, would open speeches to supporters with an occasional routine. He would say hi, before adding: "Or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour.' "

French bristle at Jeb Bush's 'French workweek' jab 10/30/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2015 1:27am]
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