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In France, a move to limit off-the-clock work emails

Scott Sayare

PARIS -- Given France's 35-hour workweek, generous vacations and persistent, if not altogether accurate, reputation for indolence, it may come as a surprise that the French are only now considering limits on the work emails and phone calls that come at all hours of the day and night, the always-on reality of professionals here as in countries deemed more industrious.

Labor unions and corporate representatives in France have agreed on an "obligation to disconnect from remote communications tools" that would apply to several hundred thousand employees of consulting, computing and polling firms. The accord, signed this month but yet to be approved by the Labor Ministry, would require that employers verify that the 11 hours of daily "rest" time to which all workers are legally entitled be spent uninterrupted.

"We really want there to be 11 consecutive hours," said Marie Buard, a project leader at the federation of communication, consulting and culture industries, or F3C, a branch of the CFDT labor union. Still, Buard said, "We also wouldn't like this to squeeze businesses and cause them problems."

Under the agreement, she said, each company would develop its own policy and enforcement mechanisms. One might choose to block communications from 11 p.m. to 10 a.m. by shutting down its email servers, for example, while another might simply ask employees not to check email between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Similar limits have been tested elsewhere. In 2011, Volkswagen started shutting off its BlackBerry servers at the end of the work day, stopping some employees in Germany from sending or receiving emails. The German Labor Ministry last year ordered its own supervisors not to contact employees outside office hours.

But the British press did not seem to notice the German precedents, and reveled at another opportunity to confirm scornful stereotypes about the French. Several websites, Twitter feeds and other news outlets in Britain lost no time in misapprehending the agreement Thursday, asserting that France had banned email after 6 p.m. or that 1 million 35-hour-a-week workers would be covered by the accord.

"The image of the 'frogs' who don't get anything done, who just take vacations -- that's not what this is about at all," said Max Balensi, an official with the Syntec federation, one of the employers' groups that signed the accord. Balensi, who said he had previously worked for Accenture and BP -- neither of which is a French company -- called such reports "disinformation."

In fact, the agreement will affect perhaps 250,000 consultants and technology workers whose contracts stipulate only an annual number of workdays, but not daily working hours, said Frédérique Lebon, a spokeswoman for CINOV, another employers' federation that signed the deal. The agreement is meant to "establish safeguards" that would ensure "balance" in the lives of employees, many of whom work with foreign companies in far-flung time zones, Lebon said.

"For us, it was extremely important to say that the employers in this sector are very attentive to the health of our employees," she said.

French labor law is highly protective of workers' rights, but businesses and even some officials in the French government say it is a significant impediment to economic growth. With the economy stagnant and unemployment at over 10 percent, President François Hollande has pledged billions of euros in tax cuts for businesses, part of a broader effort to make French companies more competitive.

Balensi, at Syntec, said, "If you don't have employees who are in good health, your competitiveness is going to fall."

Like competitiveness, innovation has also become a political watchword.

"For once, we've been innovative!" said Buard, the union representative, laughing. She acknowledged, however, that limits on email were most likely not what Hollande had in mind.


By SCOTT SAYARE
The New York Times