Is French Capitalism Causing Mass Suicide?


The New York Times reports that French workers—beneficiaries of some of Europe's most generous workplace rules—are suffering under the boot heel of their corporate masters. Observe, says the Times, the "spate of suicides at France Télécom" which have "revealed a paradox at the heart of French society: even with robust labor protection, workers feel profoundly insecure, with many complaining that the pace of economic change is pushing them beyond their limits."

One worker was so distraught that he was being moved to a different department (his contract stipulated that he couldn't be fired), the poor lamb stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting. "The night before, my manager had called me into his office to tell me that I no longer had the skills required for my job and that I had to change," he said. Change, that is, to a different position in the same company at the same salary.

The union representing France Télécom are demanding that the "massacre" of the company's employees be stopped, presumably by shortening their work week to 15 hours and providing them with comfy pillows. After media and union pressure, France Télécom's "number two" executive stepped down yesterday.

This has been a good issue for rallying France's commie unions, but there is a minor problem with the "spate of suicides" narrative. The Times admits that "In statistical terms, the 24 suicides at France Télécom since February 2008–including eight since the beginning of summer, with the latest confirmed on Monday–are not extraordinary for a company employing 102,000 people in France."

The AFP is on the story too, also admitting that "Statistically, it is not clear whether the 24 suicides and 14 attempted suicides at the former state-owned giant these past 20 months are significant." A curious formulation; the statistics are, in fact, quite clear that suicides of France Télécom workers are in line with the national average.

And check out this extraordinary bit of bias, from the same story: "As France shifts from a paternalist corporate culture to a flexible, market-driven one–symbolised by an invasion of US-style jargon such as "le deadline" or "le benchmarking"–workers are being left by the roadside." No evidence is offered to substantiate this claim, save a few hyperventilating quotes from local union bosses.

While recent studies have shown that French workers are on the clock longer than the much-maligned, government-imposed 35-hour limit (farmers, incidentally, do quite a bit to push up the average), the AFP also misleads when it writes that "Despite a statutory 35-hour working week, many French actually toil much longer with an hourly productivity that is among the highest in the developed world, according to the OECD."

In 2004, the OECD had this to say about French work habits:

Today, annual hours worked per employee in France are 8% below the EU average, and among the lowest in the OECD area (see graphs). This gap widens to 17% when comparing France with Canada, and to 20% if compared with the US, Japan, Australia or New Zealand. A far cry from the 1970s when annual hours worked per employee were almost identical across the OECD area. France also recorded one of the steepest declines in annual hours worked over the past decade, mainly reflecting the impact of the 35-hour week.

In 2008, the OECD provided this chart of average hours worked per year, broken down by country:

Update: The Wall Street Journal story on the suicides at France Telecom adds this rather interesting detail: "Still, France Télécom is having more trouble than others cutting costs: 65% of the 100,000 people at the company have civil-servant contracts–dating to the time when the company was owned by the French state–and therefore can't be fired."