Sarkozy and Unhappy French Workers

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy is having trouble figuring out what makes his workers happy. Although he has often touted himself as an admirer of the United States, he apparently hasn’t figured out that maybe the answer lies across the Atlantic.

Sarkozy was elected president in a 2007 landslide on a platform of economic reform that promised lower taxes, less public spending and less government interference in the market in order to boost the French economy and reduce chronic unemployment. But although he instituted a handful of mild reforms his first several months in office, a whirlwind love affair and subsequent marriage to Italian model Carla Bruni quickly distracted him from his agenda.

Perhaps softened by his romance, Sarkozy has shifted gears and earlier this year seemed to discard his economic reforms in favor of a new “politics of civilization” with more emphasis on quality of life and ecological issues. Sarkozy even commissioned two Nobel Prize-winning economists to fashion a new parameter of national growth—a sort of Gross Domestic Contentment index that stresses advances in quality of life over purely economic gains registered by a traditional Gross Domestic Product. Announcement of the new index prompted the leader of the Socialist opposition party to sneer that, “When you cannot achieve growth you change the indicators.”

Sarkozy’s problem seems to be that although he clearly understands how the government’s high taxes and stultifying labor market regulations have inhibited the French economy, he also thinks that many of the distinctive characteristics of French economic life--from protections against getting fired to early pensions and a short work week--make French workers who are already employed so happy that he can’t afford to wipe away those employment perks.

But maybe Sarkozy should take a closer look at what makes workers content. He might be startled at what he finds. For one thing, the French, for all of their job security and employment perks (as well as great food and excellent wine), are among the least happy people in the developed world, according to an intriguing and well-researched new book by Syracuse University economist Arthur Brooks, Gross National Happiness. According to the International Social Survey cited by Brooks, only 35 percent of the French say they are completely or very happy, compared to 56 percent of Americans. Among “old Europe,” only citizens of the former West Germany are less happy than the French—maybe because they’re still burdened by the steep tab of integrating the old, economically destitute East Germany. Even so, the French are not far from the European norm, which is well below that of the United States in terms of overall life satisfaction.

Work has a lot to do with this, says Brooks, who headlines one of his chapters, "Happiness is a Full-Time Job." He notes that in surveys more than half of all Americans say they are completely or very satisfied with their jobs, compared to only 35 percent of the English, 33 percent of the Spanish and 32 percent of the French. There’s no mystery why, Brooks contends. Even as our media commentators warn of rising worker anxiety in a rapidly changing American economy, the strictures that many European countries have put in place to protect workers make them less willing to risk changing jobs, and companies less willing to expand their workforces, trapping many employees in their jobs whether they like them or not. “If finding a new job is a difficult or impossible task, I will hold on to my old job for dear life, even if it is a bad match for my interests, skills and tastes,” writes Brooks.

Much of the commentary on work, both here and in Europe, has consistently gotten all of this wrong. Without bothering to consult the data, commentators have assumed that workers are much better off—and hence happier—in Europe. After all, they not only have more job security there, but work shorter hours, take on average twice as much vacation time as we do, and retire about five years earlier. As Time magazine once observed, here in America “religion comes packaged with a stern message that hard work is good for the soul. Modern Europe has avoided so melancholy a lesson.” Or as the Telegraph in London once suggested, we work so hard because Americans are “terrified of losing their jobs.”

Actually, what the data show are that people around the developed world find fulfillment in work and often work hard because they enjoy it. That’s true, moreover, not only of those in high-powered white collar jobs, but across the income spectrum. When, however, workers stay in jobs they dislike because their labor market is not very flexible and opportunities are not great, they look for pleasure outside of work and demand more time off and shorter workweeks. Those are substitutes, though poor ones, for the fulfillment one can find in work. That’s one reason why the European country closest to ourselves on international surveys of satisfaction are the Swiss, who enjoy high levels of investment and trade freedom and a more flexible labor market than most Europeans.

Sarkozy may be figuring at least some of this out. After his “politics of civilization” met with a cool reception, he now seems to be trying to get his old agenda back on track. Last week he abruptly proposed ending France’s 35-hour work week, which was instituted in 1998 under the assumption that if workers toiled fewer hours, there would be more work for the unemployed, and that would spur economic growth. Of course, only in France do they believe that having employees work less would boost growth, and of course it hasn’t worked out that way at all.

Still, French unions are up in arms and ready to strike over the proposal. But that may be because Sarkozy is going about his reform in the wrong way. Based on what Brooks has found, the French President should be telling workers he’s lifting the restrictions on working more than 35 hours a week so that they can enjoy themselves more. A few, at least, will actually understand what he’s talking about, and France will be the better for it.

Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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