France has been gripped recently by a wave of strikes and demonstrations — protesters old and young, rural and urban, progressive and conservative, blue and white collar, all taking to the streets to protest their government’s effort to nudge the retirement age from 62 to 64.
It all seems so déjà vu. Yet, as trade unions and political parties mobilize for a new and perhaps greater wave of strikes on Tuesday, we might take a break from our workday to glance at the country’s history. Are the French, as the stereotype goes, being just lazy?
Statistical tables offer one startling answer. Though the aggregate productivity of French workers is slightly lower than that of American workers, it is dramatically higher than that of their European peers. In fact, it is higher than the G7 average. Moreover, the French give the lie to popular tropes — and their country’s legally mandated 35-hour workweek — by working more hours per week than do their famously industrious German counterparts.
Yet cultural inflection points suggest another but no less startling answer. Yes, the French are also lazy. It’s just not in the way we lazily think.
Consider Michel de Montaigne, who in 1571, fed up with his job as a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux, quit at the age of 38. Retreating to his library, he inscribed his reason on the wall of his study. “Weary of the servitude of the courts,” Mr. Montaigne declared, “I am determined to retire in order to spend what little remains of my life, now more than half run out … consecrated to my freedom, tranquillity, and leisure.”
He went on to invent an entirely new kind of writing — the essay — by which he launched an extraordinary experiment in self-examination. Yet he experimented lazily. “I have to solicit it nonchalantly,” he wrote about his memory. “What I do easily and naturally I can no longer do if I order myself to do it by strict and express command,” he wrote. For the man who transformed our way of reading and writing, he was seriously unserious. “If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there.” He added: “I do nothing without gaiety.”
A few centuries later, a fellow Frenchman proved equally industrious when it came to laziness. The radical thinker Paul Lafargue is famous today for a pamphlet published in 1880: “The Right to be Lazy.” Not surprisingly, then, that Mr. Lafargue depended on the financial support of someone else — Friedrich Engels, who did the same for Mr. Lafargue’s father-in-law, Karl Marx.
In an odd twist, Mr. Lafargue kept running out of money, or being run into prison, because he was busy making the case for the worker’s right to be lazy. Our natural state, he argued, is leisure. Yet industrialists and ideologues, to enjoy lives of ease, had inculcated in the rest of us the belief in the “right to work.”
As a result, Mr. Lafargue declared, the proletariat, “perverted by the dogma of work,” had betrayed its instincts and historic mission. “Rude and terrible has been its punishment. All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.” Predictably, this did not go down well either in the workers’ paradise of Stalin’s Russia, which decried Mr. Lafargue’s apology for laziness, or Marxist historians, who derided him as a “hedonist.”
Mr. Lafargue never explained how we should spend our wealth of leisure time. (Even his father-in-law managed to sketch a future where we would “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.”) Tellingly, when Mr. Lafargue, at the age of 69, died by suicide in 1911, his reason dovetailed with his philosophy: “I am killing myself before pitiless old age, which gradually deprives me one by one of the pleasures and joys of existence.”
A century later, France produced yet another apologist for avoiding work, the influential theorist Frédéric Lordon. In his 2010 book “Capitalisme, désir et servitude” (given the more sensationalist English title “Willing Slaves of Capital”), he argued that today’s employers, rather than responding to worker resistance with a show of force, instead conjure a show of friendship. They are so friendly, Mr. Lordon warns, that we willingly swallow their promise that work is a “source of immediate joy.”
Mr. Lordon was a guiding spirit to the “rise up at night” protests in 2016, when demonstrators occupied public places across France to oppose the labor reforms proposed by the then-Socialist government. One of their demands was the creation of a universal basic income. This would, in effect, subsidize laziness — or, more accurately, a certain kind of laziness. While la paresse is a common word for laziness in French, so too is l’oisiveté. Deriving from the Latin otium, it means focused calm or even spiritual elevation, so very different from negotium, the sort of work that gets in life’s way.
A few months ago, Sandrine Rousseau, a prominent member of the French Green Party, caused a stir when she called for a worker’s right to laziness. Along with practical concerns over whether they could continue jobs into their mid-60s that tax their bodies and spirits, France’s protesters also share the conviction addressed by Rousseau and Lordon, Lafargue and Montaigne. Our horizon, remarked a 20-something protester, holds nothing more than “working longer and harder.” An early retirement devoted not just to leisure but to volunteer work, she added, seemed increasingly distant.
Americans might well scowl at such claims. But if we pause to think, might that not be, well, a bit lazy of us?
Robert Zaretsky is a historian and the author of, most recently, “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.”
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