By CORINNE MAIER, New York Times
Published: September 5, 2005
Paris — Thoreau deplored the supremacy of work in this way: "It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work." Fortunately, there is one day a year in which one celebrates work without going there: Labor Day.
And it's you Americans who have invented it. We French thank you for that, even if few of us realize that this paradoxical day comes from across the Atlantic. Nonetheless, it was in America, a decidedly pioneering land, where the idea of a shorter workweek, a notion dear to French hearts, was born.
All that began on May 1, 1886. On that historic day, American workers went on strike to demand an eight-hour day; at that time it was habitual to work 10 to 12 hours - quelle horreur! Alas, the strike resulted in the Haymarket tragedy, and European Socialists, shocked, decided to fix May 1 as the day for demanding better working conditions.
Even though the impetus for the May 1 Fête du Travail comes from America, your Labor Day is not celebrated then, but in September. And this difference in date changes everything. For in France, May 1 announces summer, and we also have a saying, "En mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît" - that is, in May, do as you please. The day is also the prelude to a series of warm-weather events that the French dote on: the Cannes film festival, the French Open tennis tournament and especially the Tour de France, even when it's always Lance Armstrong who wins.
Thus, in France, Labor Day is the beginning of a season of pleasures, while for you in America, it is the official end. You don't work that day, but vacation is over and it's time to roll up your sleeves and buckle down. You have one consolation: your Labor Day is always on a Monday, so you are sure of enjoying what we French call with delight a "week-end prolongé." May 1, however, capriciously moves around. This year was especially disappointing: May 1 was a Sunday, so no break from work. Next year, though, yippee: it's a Monday!
Aside from the date, the French and Americans simply celebrate Labor Day differently. Americans have picnics and family gatherings; we have the lily of the valley, brought into the city by rural folk who've gathered it in the woods, and protests. Every year, the famous May 1 protest gathers together union members, militants and leftists. This march, though closely covered by the news media, doesn't usually get a lot of attention from the public. There are exceptions, as in 2002, when the threat of the extreme right's coming to power drove a million Parisians into the streets. I was there too: engulfed in an enormous crowd, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with ... a colleague from the office. Here indeed is proof that May 1 is the Fête du Travail....
Still, it is the day when the Americans, like the French, should reflect on the meaning of their jobs. Everybody knows that the two nationalities don't have the same attitude toward work. Americans think the French are lazy, and the French think Americans are interested only in money. Of course, these are stereotypes, as are many other perceptions we have about each other (after all, some Frenchwomen do get fat). But because the French work 35 hours a week, Americans sneer, forgetting that in many years French workers have a higher productivity rate than their American counterparts - proof that you can work better by working less.
Americans also forget that going to work every day is often more a chore than a pleasure. You seem more and more disillusioned about work: only a third of you say that you love your jobs. In such conditions, it's not surprising that you spend on average two hours of your workday ... not working. Answering personal e-mail messages, shopping online, playing computer games or chatting with co-workers ... it's so much more pleasant than working, really.
My American friends, there you are caught, red-handed, being lazy. Is that enough to reconcile the Americans and the French? United in indolence, a foundation of sloth in which Labor Day is the cornerstone. Will Laziness Unlimited be the future of work?
Corinne Maier, an economist, is the author of "Bonjour Laziness: Jumping Off the Corporate Ladder." This article was translated by The Times from the French.