The workweek is thirty five hours in France. In France all workers receive a minimum of five weeks of vacation (the average French worker has about seven weeks of paid vacation a year, in America, that figure is less than four) 11 legal holidays and personal leave days; and the work year averages 1440 hours (Americans work approximately 1800 hours a year according to World Policy Institute analysts. The United States is the only advanced capitalist country in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays). After forty years of working a French worker has a pension guaranteed, and French workers cannot be fired without a legitimate cause for dismissal (workers with two years of seniority or more receive severance pay). Additionally, the average commute, in France, works out to 36 hours (the U.S. average is 46), and all education, in France, is free; and includes primary school through university, plus graduate school, medical, law, and other types of professional education.
There is a system of family allowance, in France, that is universal and funded by the employer. Families will receive this funding until a child is 16, without consideration of the parents’ income; and special needs children are fully allotted for by the government. Other French family benefits include, a minimum of four days hospital stay for birthing mothers, social workers available free of charge to parents (to aid new parents with child-rearing, finances, and other parental responsibilities), and maternal or paternal work leave, until a child reaches the age of 3 (with entitlement to reenter the same or an equivalent level job). Parents also receive free state-run day care for their children (from the age of 4 months), and the cost of this service is based on a given family’s annual income (wouldn’t most Americans love to vote for a family values Republican running on this platform!).
When the French first implemented their 35 hour work-week the change in the quality of life was astounding. Gyms, voluntary organizations, swimming pools and community organizations all saw their memberships increase, and weekend getaways became a boom market. Parents began to take Wednesdays off to spend time with their little ones (French schools close on Wednesday afternoons), and the new time off is allowed to be utilized flexibly, to conform fluidly with each individual's schedule (many workers just subtract an hour or two from each work day). Moreover, an impressive 80 per cent of those who have benefited, from the work-week alteration, said it has been “positive” or “very positive” to their quality of life.
When the French do work, they devote less time to it than any of their neighboring European countries. They work an average of 39.1 hours per week, the least among the 25 EU countries, according to Eurostat, the EU’s Luxembourg-based statistics office. Compare that to 42.2 hours in Britain and 42.6 hours in Poland. Unemployment benefits in France equal 57 per cent to 75 per cent of a jobseeker’s latest salary, capped at €5126 a month. Benefits can last for up to three years, and occasionally longer for people closing in on retirement. In the US, unemployment benefits are equivalent to about half the worker’s salary, up to $US2000 a month in the highest-paying state (Washington), and benefits typically expire in six months.
Europeans often remark that Americans “live to work”, while Europeans “work to live”; indeed, the Constitution of the European Union even has some funny characteristics to it, that might seem strange relative to American values (although the French and Dutch defeated it in a referendum, I do not believe it was because of these principles). The European Union Constitution’s Charter of Fundamental Rights goes far beyond the U.S. Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments to the U.S. Constitution; it promises everyone preventive health care, daily and weekly rest periods, an annual period of paid leave, maternity and parental leave, social and housing aid, and environmental regulation. It’s no wonder that the lifespan in France, is three years longer than that of the U.S. (81 in France, 78 in the U.S.).
The French do have some problems in their economy (a rather sizable deficit and a significantly higher unemployment rate than the U.S), it’s not all a vibrant, transcendental Utopian form of society. But while a big chunk of France’s debt can be accounted for in spending on social benefits for French workers (which are arguably an investment in the future health and well being of society); in the U.S., in the year 2007, the military budget came out to a whopping $600 billion dollars. Moreover, the first five years of the war in Iraq added $400 billion to that already remarkable total.
According to the 2007, CIA World Factbook, the French and U.S. national debts are both estimated at approximately 64.7% of each nation’s GDP. Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued that the war will significantly increase our national deficit, and will end up costing American taxpayers 1 to 2 trillion dollars when the whole messy situation is over. The choices for Americans shouldn’t be that difficult for the American people to make; Americans must collectively make a determination, as to whether or not they want their country's future to be that of perpetual warring and prioritizing the maximization of profits, or that of a society with an extensive safety net and a more equalitarian, socially amiable society.