Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Bonjour paresse

The number one reason why most Americans avoid political organizing is probably lack of free time. Can they take a page from the latest slacker manifesto from France?
Bonjour paresse (Hello Laziness), a call to middle managers of the world to rise up and throw out their laptops, organigrams and mission statements, is the unexpected publishing sensation of the summer in France. Subtitled "The Art and the Importance of Doing the Least Possible in the Workplace", the 113-page "ephlet" (part-essay, part-pamphlet) is to France's managerial class -- the cadres -- what the Communist Manifesto once was to the lumpen proletariat.

Written by Corinne Maier, an economist at state-owned Electricite de France (EDF), Bonjour paresse flashed -- albeit briefly -- to the number one spot on Amazon's French bestseller list. An anarchic antidote to management tomes promising the secrets of ever greater productivity,

Bonjour paresse is a slacker's bible, a manual for those who devote their professional lives to the sole pursuit of idleness. There have been many works in praise of idleness over the decades, but with the French work ethic weakened by the introduction of the 35- hour work week, the siren's appeal has never been stronger. . . .

Over lunch at the Cafe Bonaparte off the Boulevard Saint Germain, the 40-year-old mother of two says it is time for wage slaves to hit back. "Businesses don't wish you well and don't respect the values they champion. This book will help you take advantage of your company, rather than the other way around. It will explain why it's in your interest to work as little as possible and how to screw the system from within without anyone noticing."

Many already are. An IFOP poll cited in the book claims 17 per cent of French managers are already so "actively disengaged" with their work that they are practically committing industrial sabotage.

Even if Bonjour paresse is obviously a tongue-in-cheek send-up of French corporate life, EDF is far from amused and has started disciplinary action. But the book is about so much more than EDF. It is a book of its time and place. France is entering a long- promised Age of Leisure. No other OECD country has witnessed as dramatic a fall in the number of hours worked per inhabitant. In its 2004 employment outlook, the OECD reported that the French worked 24 per cent fewer hours than in 1970, whereas Americans toiled 20 per cent more. France was not alone. Large declines were also seen in Germany and Japan. But the situation in France is extreme.

Two factors explain why. First, the proportion of people of working age in France who manage to find jobs has plunged to 61.9 per cent, compared with over 70 per cent in the UK, the US and Denmark. Second, the introduction of the 35-hour week means French workers put in less time than ever. Maier, who works just two-and-a-half days a week, is hardly unusual. The average French worker clocks only 1,459 hours per year, compared with a mean of 1,762 for the OECD as a whole and almost 2,000 for the Stakhanovites in the Czech Republic. . . .

The disenchantment with corporate life is total. Forget In Praise of Slow, Carl Honore's faddish new treatise on "marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age" and all the other wimpy pleas for work-life balance. It is hard to see Maier and her electrician buddies rushing into new Spanish "siesta salons" selling 20 minutes of sleep for E4. They'd much rather zonk out on the job for free. There's no "I don't know how she does it" quest for the tempo giusto because the object of work is simply to do as little of it as possible. . . .

Bonjour paresse initially seemed destined to disappear without a trace. Published at the end of April by the little-known Editions Michalon, the book, whose title is a nod to Francoise Sagan's 1954 novel Bonjour tristesse,generated little comment. At the end of July, however, Le Monde, France's leading daily, unexpectedly devoted a front page article to EDF's disciplinary action against the book's author. The newspaper of reference reported that Maier had been summoned to a preliminary hearing on August 17.

Failing to see the funny side, EDF accused Maier of "repeatedly failing to respect her obligations of loyalty towards the company" and of running a "personal campaign, clearly proclaimed in the book, to spread gangrene through the system from within". Citing her habit of reading newspapers in meetings and of leaving one gathering early on May 3, the charge sheet also alleged she had neglected to secure permission to mention on the back cover that she worked for EDF.

Corinne Maier is as bolshy and unrepentant as her book leads you to expect. Her motor-bike helmet by her side and her long brown hair looking like it could use a good brush, she declares she has no intention of attending the disciplinary meeting. "It's the middle of August and I will obviously be on holiday," she says. "I have sent them copies of my train and ferry reservations to prove it."

But she insists she is not looking to get fired. Her situation clearly suits her well.

Born into a family of aluminium siding salesmen, she studied in Paris at Sciences-Po, the French equivalent of the London School of Economics, before taking further degrees in industrial economics and later a doctorate in psychoanalysis. She has found time to write eight books since 2001, including several works on Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst. Three of these come out later this year, two introductory books on Gaullism and Nazi Germany and a more "intello" book on Pasteur.

France's unions have championed her cause. They see EDF as determined to crush all sources of dissent to its transformation from quintessential symbol of the French public service into a regular societe anonyme, a public company that the centre-right government will then be able to privatise. An umbrella body representing the six main unions at EDF has issued a statement defending Maier's freedom of speech, saying she had "not revealed any secrets, jeopardised any business or even mentioned EDF by name once in the book".

"EDF has cited the pettiest offences," says Maier. "The real reason is that they don't like my book." Refusing to comment on "an ongoing disciplinary procedure", EDF is belatedly trying to bury the row its own clumsy response had started. The book, however, is already being reprinted. "My publisher is delighted with EDF's reaction," says Maier. "It is all thanks to them that we have a bestseller. We have had interest from numerous overseas publishers wanting the translation rights."

Jo Johnson is a unit of human resource in the FT's Paris office


1. You are a modern day slave. There is no scope for personal fulfilment. You work for your pay-cheque at the end of the month, full stop.

2. It's pointless to try to change the system. Opposing it simply makes it stronger.

3. What you do is pointless. You can be replaced from one day to the next by any cretin sitting next to you. So work as little as possible and spend time (not too much, if you can help it) cultivating your personal network so that you're untouchable when the next restructuring comes around.

4. You're not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track

5. Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. You'll only have to work harder for what amounts to peanuts.

6. Make a beeline for the most useless positions, (research, strategy and business development), where it is impossible to assess your 'contribution to the wealth of the firm'. Avoid 'on the ground' operational roles like the plague.

7. Once you've found one of these plum jobs, never move. It is only the most exposed who get fired.

8. Learn to identify kindred spirits who, like you, believe the system is absurd through discreet signs (quirks in clothing, peculiar jokes, warm smiles).

9. Be nice to people on short-term contracts. They are the only people who do any real work.

10. Tell yourself that the absurd ideology underpinning this corporate bullshit cannot last for ever. It will go the same way as the dialectical materialism of the communist system. The problem is knowing when...

Translated from 'Bonjour paresse: De l'art et de la necessite d'en faire le moins possible en entreprise' by Corinne Maier (Editions Michalon, E12.) (Jo Johnson, "The Slacker's New Bible," Financial Times, August 14, 2004)
Then again, if you don't first build labor unions, political parties, and social movements on the left that militantly fight for the rights to leisure and free speech -- institutions originally created by fighters who, pace Maier, didn't think that "It's pointless to try to change the system. Opposing it simply makes it stronger" -- you can't easily follow in the footsteps of French slackers.


Anonymous said...

right on sister. I have a MFA in art but that gets me no where so I work for myself having to answer to housewives as I polish their furniture and clean their toilet. You have prompted a feeling I have felt for a long time. Maybe a PHD in english. America runs one down especially on the East coast. We have 75 hour work weeks here no wonder people go screaming through malls! And our president, what a humilation. I think we work to forget that we are the blind nation and we feed this to our children. No feelings here just endless activity until someone drops unless of course you are that 1 percent

Anonymous said...

I am a French citizen, working 50 hours + a week in San Francisco (what am I thinking?!) , and just wanted to precise that we frenchies are not all "slackers" as someone put it. The 35 hour per week concerns mainly factory workers. If you are an executive, don't except to work 4 days a week . What is true though is that we (except me..) all have six weeks of vacation a year (at least). And you know what ? France is still one of the top economical power in the world (last time I checked). In this regard you could think that France (and Germany) are the most advanced countries in the world. Again it all depends on how you define PROGRESS.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Fench in San Francisco, lesser hours worked with equal productivity equals a more advanced and fair society. We come to life to be happy, working 50+ hours per week gives you no room to personal life. No wonder in "advanced" countries the family is broken.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this book that was long overdue.
I started out at Purchases, being exposed to all the shit that broke down in the plant, with everybody after my ass ('when will it be here at last!?')
Now I am at Sales, working maybe half (or less), no one cares if I surf the net the whole day, let other salesguys do the peacemeal job of selling to small clients, and earn almost 3 times as much as with Purchases. Who needs an MBA? All you have to know - as a veteran colleague puts it - is the anatomy of the firm.