Thursday, January 16, 2014

I remember Agincourt...

Jerry had his Tom. Sherlock had (or has...?) his Moriarty. Batman, his Joker, Superman his Lex Luthor. And England has France.

Only one of them, of course, has enjoyed an extended period of detente. But lurking beneath the apparent veneer of co-existence between neighbours separated by the thinnest ribbons of sea is a stream of bubbling magma that periodically, and usually at the slightest provocation, bursts through the cultural fissures that do exist between these two countries.

The latest eruption concerns work. More specifically, how much we do. Or, put another way, who does more and where.

The trouble began last week when Allister Heath, the editor of City AM, a free business newspaper for London, ran an uncompromising editorial in which he branded France a "failed socialist experiment". Having now lived in Paris for three years I would argue that the buses and trains run on time, the streets are washed almost every night, and the rubbish is collected every two days. Which basically makes this country Cuba but with better cars.

However: "France’s economic sickness," wrote Heath, "is primarily due to its overbearing state, horrendously high tax levels, insane regulations, absurd levels of inefficient public spending and generalised hatred of commerce, capitalism, success and hard work."

Fans of The Goon Show might consider this the reverse fixture of The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill On Sea). Whether Heath was merely making the point that France is rapidly turning into Europe's biggest economic basket case (strong argument that it is, to be fair) or was simply kicking off the first full working week of 2014 with a bit of neighbour baiting is unclear.

Either way, France's representative to the Court of St. James was somewhat "n'était pas amusé". In reposte, the French embassy issued a thunderous list of the Top Ten reasons why Heath got it wrong, refuting his claims about the French economy ("Even if one might hope to see faster growth, a little homework would have revealed that France’s economy is not in fact 'shrinking at an accelerating rate'."), that economic growth forecasts were notoriously ropey ("the national statistical agency, and Banque de France have had a better track record and both point to an economic rebound in the last quarter of 2013"), that the French state and tax system is overbearing and horrendously high, and knocking back other claims related to the French national political, economic and social culture.

But what raised the collective French handbag highest was Heath's assertion that, well, the French simply do not work as hard as the British, and that any multinational thinking of opening up a branch in France would be wise to think again.

"A very simple data search reveals that France’s labour productivity stands at a healthy €45.4 per hour worked according to Eurostat." harrumphed the embassy. "This is well ahead of the EU-27 average of €32.1 (source: Eurostat 2012). Furthermore, the OECD reports that the average usual number of hours per week worked in France stood at 38 hours for 2011, compared to 36.4 in the UK and 35.5 in Germany (source: OECD 2011). Hard work indeed!"

Well, that told us. The timing, however, couldn't have been worse, coming amid the vaudeville farce surrounding the shagging arrangements of le président de la République, and Scooterman's attempts to reacquire the national news agenda for his strategic national purpose.

As a Brit working in Paris, last week's brouhaha has both put me in an awkward position, as well as in a position of unique perspective. To address both, let's bring the two offending children to the front of the class.

We can quibble all night long on whose economy is in better shape, but to suggest that either country works harder is, to me a moot point. In fact, all those convenient economic indicators about legally-defined working hours, average wages and contribution to GDP are, while well recognised for their statistical importance, utter bollocks when you're pulling another all-nighter in a London bank, or in the office in Paris on a Saturday afternoon, just because that's the only time the boss can see you.

My experience, after working in France for three years, is that people work as hard as I've ever seen, if I take into account the people in my company, and indeed the behaviour of office workers in buildings around Paris. The two-hour lunch break, which was by no means a myth, is more or less no more. And while it's true that France enjoys more public holidays and longer summer holidays than anywhere else in Europe, I've yet to see any let up in people working like mad to get things done before they go away.

I am, though, a manager. I'm therefore not required to clock in and clock off in quite the same manner as French employees working to the country's criticised 35-hour week. But, then, this is where generalisation is a dangerous animal. Just because I'm working in a company that has downsized dramatically and is, by its own admission, in recovery from financial struggle is clearly not going to be the touchstone for every other worker in France.

Is the UK any less or any more a diligent worker? I doubt it. And I don't think you can deliver such a cultural verdict anyway. You will find on both sides of the English Channel the dedicated and the hardworking, as well as the dysfunctional and the feckless.

But is there any major distinction, really, between the two countries' economies? Yes, France may be struggling to emerge from recession, and yes, it does suffer from its own adhesion to high taxes and an equally high level of flexibility-crushing bureaucracy, but the UK - currently - is no better. Have the Bullingdon Boys really turned the corner and transformed Britain into Europe's economic miracle?

Which means that all this mudslinging should be chortled at, but nothing more. As any rudimentary history scholar will know, spats between Britain and France have been part of the rough and tumble of our neighbourly co-existence ever since the British Isles cast off its moorings and positioned itself 21 miles off the French Coast.

For every dull British comedian's jibes about cheese and deodorant I can assure you that there are equal barbs about binge drinking and romantic incapability in the UK. We do enjoy a good wind-up of our nearest and closest: I had a teacher at school who threatened to devote an entire lesson to Agincourt should I attempt to bring my French exchange student into class. I also have an aunt who refuses to buy French Golden Delicious apples - on principle.

The upshot is that the margin of difference between the nations is, I can vouch, is thin. Indeed, as thin as that slither of water that keeps these two nations apart. Sort of. 

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