The Next French Revolution May Be Taking Place at the Water Cooler

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Times Staff Writer

The revolution according to Corinne Maier will not be televised. Nor will it be bloody, or even noisy.

Instead, it will be a surreptitious uprising by water-cooler warriors tired of bottling up their dislike for the drudgery and indignity of the workplace. It will unleash a silent legion of corporate employees who have sat through enough meetings with glad-handing, fast-talking, do-nothing bosses of a species that Maier labels Homo economicus cretinus.

Maier herself has withstood her share of boring meetings. But she did something about it. She wrote a 112-page manifesto titled “Hello, Laziness: Of the Art and Necessity of Doing the Least Possible in Business.”


And France reeled.

Maier’s satiric book, which denounces corporate culture as rigid, empty-headed, avaricious and ruthless, has zoomed to the top of the bestseller lists here, selling more than 120,000 copies at last count. In urging office workers to smile and look busy while sabotaging the system from within, she has ignited a national debate about the French work ethic -- or lack thereof.

“What you do ultimately means nothing and you could be replaced tomorrow by the first passing cretin,” Maier writes. “So work as little as possible, and spend some time (but not too much) on ‘marketing yourself’ and ‘building yourself a network’ so you will have support and be untouchable (and untouched) in case of a restructuring.”

Maier, an economist, writer and mother of two, has shown a nonchalant flair for the talking-head circuit and become an overnight cultural personality. Last month, she pulled off the rare feat of starring in two top weekly newsmagazines. She grinned from the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur wearing T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, an anarchist poster girl for “the new anti-job movement,” as the magazine called it. And she expounded on workplace malaise in a cover package in Le Point headlined: “Do The French Work Enough?”

While Americans toil longer days, take shorter vacations and worry about downsizing and layoffs, France exemplifies Europe’s image as a bastion of social benefits, leisure time and employment security.

With lengthy vacations and a much-debated 35-hour workweek, French employees clock an average of 1,453 hours a year -- compared with 1,800 for Japanese and Spaniards and 1,792 for Americans. France leads the world in early retirement: Only 41% of the over-55 workforce is active, compared with 62% in the United States. At the same time, less than one-third of the French population between 15 and 24 holds jobs -- in contrast to 62% of young Americans.

In addition to the sacred vacation month of August, many Parisians take weeklong fall and winter breaks and two weeks of spring vacation. They use strategically timed long weekends known as “bridges” to escape during May as well. On any given weekday, a lot of people seem somehow to avoid the office.


“You don’t need statistics to know it; all you need to do is stroll St. Germain-des-Pres to wonder about it: There are people everywhere and lots of able-bodied adults of the age when you are employed and sustaining the nation’s economic strength,” Maier writes.

Despite unemployment stuck near 10%, France still boasts a world-class economy with powerhouse industries in aerospace, automobiles and agriculture. The nation also sustains one of the world’s best productivity rates.

That bolsters a school of thought that France and its neighbors, rather than lollygagging, have achieved a civilized balance of work and play, of individual initiative and social equality. Prominent U.S. economist Jeremy Rifkin argues that this “European dream” contrasts with an increasingly frenzied and ragged American way of life.

But Maier and others suggest that the French mix of comfort and prosperity has not necessarily produced happiness. It may seem bizarre to observers in developing countries where people literally fight for menial jobs, but studies portray French workers as disgruntled and, in some cases, downright whiny.

One poll showed that 17% of French employees described themselves as “actively disengaged” from their jobs. France ranked eighth in a survey of job satisfaction in the 10-richest nations. More and more businesspeople desert their careers in favor of teaching, traveling or mere loafing, recruits in a growing “anti-job rebellion,” according to Le Nouvel Observateur.

“The ‘anti-jobbies’ are everywhere, and they have never been so numerous!” the magazine reported last week. “They will tell you they are bored at the office. They could care less about career plans and their resume.”


The causes are both local and global. Rebellion is ingrained in the national character: the French Revolution of 1789, the student uprisings of May 1968, the strikes that shut down cities, the recent combative campaign during which unions cut off power to the weekend homes of government officials. Distaste for capitalism still colors politics here.

In addition, the French don’t tend to wrap their identity in their work the way some other cultures do. When people introduce themselves at a party in Los Angeles, it’s common, even polite, to ask: “What do you do?” But France’s reserved, ritualistic social codes put such a question on a par with asking a stranger about his or her sex life.

“You never ask someone what they do for a living or where they studied -- that’s extremely impolite,” Maier explained during an interview at her pleasant duplex apartment in the middle-class southern reaches of the Left Bank. “At a dinner party, you are supposed to just hint, with little impressionistic touches, about where you work. And gradually, during the course of the evening, you might reach the point where you say it. It’s an indirect approach.”

As far as Maier and other critics are concerned, the private sector smothers initiative and creativity by aping the vertical, top-down, bureaucratic tendencies of the public sector. That demoralizes workers and discourages hopes for advancement -- as does the dominance of an ossified elite groomed in select graduate schools.

Maier also skewers targets that are familiar the world over. She attacks corporate jargon, which takes the form here of an arcane “Franglais.” She denounces the rapacious zest for “le downsizing” and outsourcing, the “gangster” mentality revealed by the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the captains of industry whose incomes soar as their ships sink.

Not surprisingly, Maier calls herself an unabashed leftist. But with a sense of humor -- and a disdain for the “unilateral stupidities” of the union establishment and the obsolete Soviet-speak whose ironic echoes she detects in the stilted “no-man’s-language” of today’s business world.


In fact, some French business leaders say Maier has made an eloquent case for the reforms urged by the center-right government, such as lengthening the 35-hour week and reducing red tape.

Maier allows that she respects self-made entrepreneurs. But she has told her children that she will be disappointed if they go to business school. And her advice to corporate denizens is to elude posts of responsibility, take refuge in “useless” departments such as consulting and research and be nice to temporary and outsourced help -- “because they are the only ones who really work.”

Maier was born in Switzerland (not a country known for forging rebels) and moved with her family to France when she was 12. Although it wasn’t a huge cultural leap, she thinks the immigrant experience gave her the critical distance that a writer needs.

“I am completely integrated into French society, I’m expert in all the codes and the values, but at the same time I feel completely outside,” she said.

As a day job, Maier does part-time research and analysis at Electricity of France, the state energy giant. When her book came out May 1, her bosses were not amused. She said they tried to punish her on the grounds that she had not been authorized to mention her job at EDF on the back cover; the company also accused her of reading a newspaper during a meeting, leaving another meeting early and, most gravely, “pursuing a strategy of rotting the company from within as described in her book.”

Maier denied the last three accusations and prepared for a hearing. Then union activists leaked word of the case to the newspapers, which jumped on the David-versus-Goliath story. Book sales skyrocketed. Last month, the company dropped the disciplinary action.


“My bosses are still furious,” Maier said cheerfully. “They reacted very, very badly. And they created an enormous success.”