For all its faults, France is the place to be

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On average, it seems that life is sweeter in France than on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – at least judging by their shorter working hours, longer lunch breaks and extended holidays. In this week’s article, John explains why Jacques Chirac, the French president, is almost the only Frenchman over 70 in regular employment, and why it’s likely to stay that way.

As you walk down from my French house to the town and the sea, you pass the Centre Roger Latournerie, a holiday village for coalminers. Visitors to the centre are mostly retired. Unskilled French workers and public sector employees leave the labour force in increasing numbers after the age of 50 and coalminers fall into both categories. In the age group 55-64, the workforce participation rate in France is 39 per cent against 60 per cent in the US.

Some older French people would like to work and are unable to find jobs. Others are forced to retire through policies imposed by aggressive trade unions. But retirement is mostly welcomed and made possible by generous state benefits. While 12 per cent of American men over 70 work, Jacques Chirac, the president, is almost the only Frenchman of that age in regular employment.

So active retraités stroll the town every morning. Many clutch bags with green crosses, symbols of the pharmacy. French law prohibits US-style drug store chains, but family-owned pharmacies are on every street corner. No patient leaves a consultation without a prescription. Drug prices are low – the pharmaceuticals industry that Mr Chirac is defending from foreign takeover depends more on imitative products than on innovation. A stamp on every packet of drugs entitles the purchaser to reimbursement from an insurer. Comprehensive health coverage is universal.

Along with the pills, the shoppers will be carrying baguettes and other fresh produce, mostly of high quality. You can buy these from market stallholders, or at lower prices and generally of inferior quality from a supermarket. In either case, you may wait some time. Conversation is a market ritual and at the supermarket there are usually three or four people ahead of you at the check-out. The minimum wage makes it expensive to put people on the till.

Purchases must be completed by midday, because the shops will then be closing for two hours or so: only the largest supermarkets stay open over lunch. The average working week in France is 34 hours, against 40 in the US. The 35-hour week was adopted by Lionel Jospin’s socialist government in 1997 but it only reinforced an established trend, and insistence on lunch is a tradition. In August, the town is swamped by holiday-makers from Paris and the north. The average French worker has 25 days of paid holiday a year, against 17 in the US.

As you read this, I shall be driving from the airport. I have a choice of three British carriers between London and Nice, at low fares; Air France, with high labour costs and obstructive unions, has abandoned the attempt to compete. As you join the motorway, you pass a large hotel school: there the state provides the training that Hyatt and McDonald’s provide in the US.

French hotels and restaurants are the envy of the world. But there is no sign of that in L’Ariane, a suburb of Nice cut off from the city as the autoroute swings north, full of unemployed immigrants and riddled with crime and drugs. The combined effect of youth unemployment, extensive vocational training and a higher education system in which people attend university full time, and interminably, means young men and women enter the workforce only slowly. That keeps the participation rate in the 15-24 age group down to 30 per cent. People aged 25-54, however, are more likely to have jobs in France than their counterparts in the US: the excluded underclass is much smaller and so is the jail population.

The consequence of all these factors – less work from older and younger people, shorter hours and long lunch breaks, extended holidays – is that average hours worked annually per head of population are 613 in France against 888 in the US. The people who are not working in France are those who would mostly have below average productivity. That is why output per hour is higher in France, but output per head is higher in the US.

France is a different country, and when the French voted strongly for socialists last weekend they expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s economic performance but greater dissatisfaction with the efforts of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, to change it. They like things as they are. So do I: that is why I am here.

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