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Vive La France, Vive Les États-Unis

When it comes to making a great nation, labor and workforce issues must take center stage--otherwise, the most any country can hope for is mediocrity.

France and America, two great nations, have much to say about how their people work, and both are pushing to make things better.

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I witnessed this up-close recently, during a 16-day tour of France from Normandy to Nice. Though it was vacation, I couldn't help but do some informal investigating and compare workplace issues in the States to those in the Fifth Republic. There are obvious differences--France's 35-hour week and generous vacation time versus America's intense work ethic and typical two weeks of vacation. Each country has die-hard supporters who believe the other country's approach is wrong.

I disagree. In important ways, America and France have it right regarding their workforces. But neither is perfect, and they could learn a lot from each other.

A New Regime

Much is being made of France's new President Nicolas Sarkozy and his emphasis on--among other things--hard work; some say he is vying to make France more like America. He appointed as finance minister Christine Lagarde, the first woman to lead the U.S. law firm Baker & McKenzie. Her nickname is "the American."

According to a recent New York Times op-ed on Lagarde:

Lagarde's goal, she says, is to slash France's chronically highly unemployment -- now about 8 percent -- to 5 percent by 2012 and increase the proportion of the total population in jobs to 70 percent from 63 percent. Rehabilitating work is central to this ambition.

Tax cuts, the termination of unemployment benefits for those refusing two valid job offers, later retirement, incentives for those working more than 35 hours, a slashing of the bureaucracy associated with job-seeking and improved professional training are among measures enacted or envisaged. Legislation to reverse the 35-hour week is possible.

''I think we have to go around it,'' Lagarde says of the law. ''To demonstrate that it's not a holy principle and it can be modified, varied, mitigated and possibly reversed.''

A CBS News story from 2005 notes:

France is still one of the world’s five largest economies. When the French work, their productivity per hour is among the highest in the world, even better than in the United States. Problem is, French workers are on the job an average of 300 hours less per year than their American counterparts, so French economic growth lags far behind the United States.

France's leadership may be borrowing some ideas from the United States. They'll likely tailor the concepts to fit the country--I don't think, as some have suggested, Sarkozy and his administration are looking to turn France into America. That's an absurd notion, not to mention impossible.

A friend who has lived in France for many years sums up the difference between the countries this way: America is a society that thrives on risk; France is a risk-averse society. If France were to boost its risk-tolerance a bit, perhaps it would be pleasantly surprised.

Working to Live

America also can be schooled in some lessons from France, especially about work-life balance and vacation. According to a Business 2.0 article, "U.S. employees are taking less time off than ever: Not only is the average number of annual vacation days granted to them a mere 12.4 - less than that of the average medieval peasant - but more than a third of us don't even use all of our allotted time off."

People I talked to in France mentioned how they relish their seven or eight weeks of vacation every year, and how much it adds to their quality of life.

The CBS story explains:

The French are so passionate about their vacations, they put pleasure before profit. As tourists throng the streets and summer temperatures hit their peak, Paris’ most popular ice-cream parlor is closed for a whole six weeks. It’s the kind of business bonanza that would be seized upon by Americans, but the French don’t seem to care.

"The big difference is money, the place of money in your life," says [Stephane] Marchand [a senior economics editor at the French newspaper, Le Figaro].

I don't suspect the average American vacation will expand to seven weeks anytime soon. But I do think that, amid all the conversations about work-life balance and flexibility, we should take a cue from France. Their quality of life is higher than ours largely because they work to live, while many Americans live to work.

It's great to love your work and deliver more than 100 percent while you work. But humans are wired to step away from the fray and enjoy the roses--that's true for the French and the Americans.

Embracing Each Other's Strengths

I've heard many Americans espouse dislike for France--without ever having traveled there. Likewise, I've been on the receiving end of some unsavory remarks and treatment in France.

Spewing such nastiness is silly.

America and France should be open to exchanging ideas about work, and to learning more about each other--especially when we encounter one another in our homelands. That doesn't mean all Americans will suddenly love everything about the French, or vice versa. But we can be wise enough to tap into each other's strengths, appreciate them, and use them to our advantage.

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