Managers must s
houlder some of the blame for France’s troubled relationship with work.
Nov 19th 2011 | from the print edition, The Economist
EVERY year, Sophie de Menthon, a French entrepreneur, holds an event called J’aime ma boîte (I love my firm) in Paris. The idea is to counter the notion that the French don’t like work. Employees are enticed to make lip dubs (a video of them lip-synching to music, if you need to ask), massage each other, vote for the nicest colleague, arrange for the accountant to swap jobs with the secretary and other stunts to celebrate their firm.
The much-mocked campaign has not had much luck. In 2007 a national strike interrupted the festivities, and in 2009 a series of suicides at France Télécom spoilt the atmosphere. This year employees showed less love for their boîte than ever before. Only 64% of those polled liked their company, down from 79% in 2005.
A truer reflection of work attitudes came this summer when French workers covered office windows with huge pictures made up of Post-it notes. Employees at GDF-Suez, a utility, stuck thousands of them to the windows of its HQ near Paris to represent Tintin, a comic-strip hero. Société Générale’s bankers responded with a picture of Asterix and Obelix across six storeys. A few employers cracked down on the time-wasting, but most did not dare.
Many outsiders conclude that French workers are simply lazy. “Absolument Dé-bor-dée!” (“Absolutely Snowed Under”), a book which came out last year, described how state employees compete to do nothing at work. Another title in this bestselling genre on avoiding toil, “Bonjour Paresse” (“Hello Laziness”) by Corinne Maier, an economist, explained how she got away with doing nothing at EDF, another utility.
In fact studies suggest that the problem with French employees is less that they are work-shy, than that they are poorly managed. According to a report on national competitiveness by the World Economic Forum, the French rank and file has a much stronger work ethic than American, British or Dutch employees. They find great satisfaction in their work, but register profound discontent with the way their firms are run.
Two-fifths of employees, according to a 2010 study by BVA, a polling firm, actively dislike their firm’s top managers. France ranks last out of ten countries for workers’ opinion of company management, according to a report from 2007. Whereas two-thirds of American, British and German employees say they have friendly relations with their line manager, fewer than a third of French workers say the same. Many employees, in short, agree with Ms Maier, who recommends that chief executives be guillotined to the tune of “La Carmagnole”, a revolutionary song.
If French work attitudes are out of the ordinary, French management methods are also unusual. The vast majority of chief executives of big firms hail from one of a handful of grandes écoles, such as École Polytechnique, an elite science school. Through what is known as parachutage, they can arrive suddenly from the top ranks of the civil service. Air France KLM, for example, announced unexpectedly last month that its new chief executive would be Alexandre de Juniac, formerly chief of staff to Christine Lagarde when she was France’s finance minister.
Although the grandes écoles are superbly meritocratic—candidates compete against each other in a series of gruelling exams—their dominance of corporate hierarchies makes workplaces much less so. At a big French bank recently, a manager promoted an executive, only to be reproached by a furious rival who said he should have been given the job because he had done better in the final exams at the same grande école.
As Thomas Philippon, a French economist, pointed out in “Le Capitalisme d’Héritiers”, a 2007 book, too many big French companies rely on educational and governmental elites rather than promoting internally according to performance on the job. In the country’s many family firms, too, opportunity for promotion is limited for non-family members. This overall lack of upward mobility, argues Mr Philippon, contributes largely to ordinary French cadres’ dissatisfaction with corporate life. A study of seven leading economies by TNS Sofres in 2007 showed that France is unique in that middle management as well as the lower-level workforce is largely disengaged from their companies.
For those farther down the ladder, French companies are hierarchical, holding no truck with Anglo-Saxon notions of “empowerment”. And bosses are more distant than ever. A big change in French management, says Jean-Pierre Basilien of Entreprise & Personnel, a Paris research centre, is that industrial managers now seldom rise through the ranks. Fifteen years ago a leading graduate would have worked in factories before moving to headquarters. Now many come up via finance or strategy.
From the ranks
There are important exceptions. Danone, a food-products firm, is one. It has made a big effort to promote people solely on competence, says Charles-Henri Besseyre des Horts, a professor at HEC, a business school which is one of the elite grandes écoles. The 2006 merger of Alcatel, a French telecoms-equipment firm, and Lucent, an American one, created a less hierarchical group. Alcatel-Lucent even encourages teleworking, uncommon in France because it means trusting workers not to goof off. Jean-Pascal Tricoire, chief executive of Schneider Electric, an ambitious energy-management firm, came up from the ranks.
French companies have particular reason to worry now about their bad boss-worker relations. An important factor in the growing gap in industrial competitiveness between France and Germany, said a recent study by Coe-Rexecode, an economic-research centre, is that German bosses and employees are better than French ones at working together. French bosses badly need to follow in the footsteps of Danone and other modernisers. If they try and fail, then at least they can blame the workers.