Heard the One About Lazy French Workers?

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By , FAIR

Washington Post photos of French and U.S. workers

Images the Washington Post offered contrasting French and U.S. workers.

Someone at the Washington Post has, evidently. Today reporter Edward Cody * (2/26/13) brings us the story of Morry Taylor, a right-wing U.S. businessman who is  in a very public fight over the work habits of the French. Taylor visited some French factories, and he’s come to the conclusion that French workers don’t do much work–they “get high salaries but only work three hours.”

Taylor’s sparring partner is Arnaud Montebourg, whom Cody calls “a handsome French Socialist…whose evocative government title is minister of productive recovery.” Cody writes:

In an unusual public exchange, the two have been trading insults about the work habits of the French, who, according to folklore, attach more importance to coffee breaks and long, winy lunches than to efficient production. It is an old and entertaining subject but one that has assumed new urgency in the fifth year of an economic crisis affecting France and its European neighbors.

 Yes, we all know the folklore about the lazy French. What would be helpful here is some dose of reality–that’s what journalism can be good for.

About as close to that as we come, though, is when Cody explains that

the work habits of the French have long been a hot topic here…. The conversation has intensified in recent months as France’s economic growth has flat-lined and factories continue to close, producing a 10 percent unemployment rate. For many economists, a big culprit is the high cost of production–an hour of work is $46 in France, compared with about $30 in the United States.

 So maybe those French work habits are screwing their economy. (Cody’s Postcolleague Howard Schneider recently recommended that France cut worker pay in order to be more like Spain, whose economy is in terrible shape.)

But does that folklore about French workers hold up? No. New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman (1/28/11) recently noted that worker productivity is basically the same as the United States. What’s different? The French work fewer hours, likely because they have more vacation time.

The Washington Post isn’t the only media outlet on this case. As Ryan Chittum wrote at CJR‘s Audit (2/26/13), Fortune recently posted a blog item with the headline, “Are the French Really That Lazy?” Chittum found that piece perplexing in that Fortune seemed to think so, but then cited the facts about French productivity deep into the piece: “Fortune doesn’t get around to mentioning the whole French-are-as-productive-as-we-are thing until the 14th paragraph of its story about its ‘unproductive labor force.’”

If leaving those facts until near the end is what makes the Fortune piece bad, then the Post is worse for never mentioning those facts at all. Cody’s point, instead, is to play off the folklore. As he writes near the end:

The two protagonists were appealing to stereotypes on both sides of the ocean: When French Socialists want to feel good about themselves, they tally the ways they differ from people like Taylor; judging by Taylor’s charges, he does the same in reverse.

The difference would seem to be more important: Taylor’s assessment of French workers does not appear to be rooted in fact; and if French socialists like to think they “differ from people like Taylor”–well, that’s because they do.

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ABOUT CORRESPONDENT CODY: He doesn’t lack credentials.  What he lacks is class consciousness and a commitment to fact-based reporting.

Ed Cody is based in Paris for The Washington Post. Before moving to Paris, Cody covered China from the Post’s Beijing bureau, the Middle East from Post bureaus in Cairo and Beirut and Central America from Mexico City and Miami. He has also worked for the Charlotte Observer and the Associated Press, where he reported in New York, New Delhi, Beirut and Paris. Cody has degrees from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and has also studied at the University of Florence and the University of Paris.

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