The Corner

French Work-a-Holics Anonymous

From a reader:

Dear Mr. Goldberg,

I enjoyed your column on the French attitude toward work with gritted teeth. I

have observed the behavior up close myself.

I spent a year living in France as a post-doc in engineering at a Grande Ecole,

in the early nineties. One of my office mates was in the final year of his

doctoral studies in acoustics, and not many graduates of the program (a top

one) were gainfully employed. Recalling the scramble that was the final year

of my own studies — the birth of my son, finshing collecting and analyzing

data, finishing and defending the dissertation, and LOOKING FOR EMPLOYMENT, I

asked my office mate how his job search was going.

Oh, uh…., he replied, somewhat puzzled, I’m not looking. I asked him to

repeat himself, not certain I’d heard correctly. Yes, he continued, I’ll be

taking the follwing year off. How are you going to live, I asked, not yet

appreciating the all-encompassing beneficence of the French system. Oh, I have

a year of unemployment benefits accumulated, so I probably won’t even think

about looking for a job until, oh, maybe nine months after I finish. Everybody

does it….

I didn’t hear much more. Hearing a “top student” consider, without a hint of

shame, that unemployment benefits are essentially a year’s paid vacation made

my head spin. de Villepin’s new law required that kids would have to prove

themselves *after* they walk in the door of their employer…. And they

responded by rioting. I mean, wouldn’t you? It would have been the first crack

in the dam! Who knows — would our paid year off then be in danger?

I should of course make some disclaimers: not everyone I met in France has this

sort of attitude. There are many hard-working people there, etc., etc. But

the students who went through the Grandes Ecoles (the tip-top, elite track –

so much for egalite) seemed to be the ones most likely to think like my

office-mate.

There are many other anecdotes I could recount, but I can hear my boss in the

hall …

Take care!

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