Mustn’t grumble

In the UK we have a stereotype of French life which is little short of idyllic. Whilst we beleaguered Anglo-Saxons are busy sheltering from the omnipresent drizzle by eating soggy sandwiches at our desks (where we will remain until at least 10 pm) our Gallic counterparts spend most of their time visiting the market, eating baguettes and cheese, and drinking wine under the midday sun. When, after a few weeks, this gruelling regime of long lunch-breaks and gastronomie begins to take its toll, they go on holiday, usually for weeks at a time.

It is therefore very difficult for us Brits to imagine that our Gallic neighbours could be anything other than sublimely happy and smugly self-satisfied.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. As the author of a blog whose raison d’être is moaning about French life, I may be skating on thin ice here, but I find myself daily taken aback by the extent to which French people complain about every aspect of their lives.

Take holidays, for instance. I have an English friend who is allocated a grand total of 51 days of holiday per year by the company they work for in France. About 30 of those days are what I might describe as “annual leave”. The remaining 21 days are RTT—or “time off in lieu”—allocated automatically on the (correct, in this case) presumption that the hours this person works routinely far exceed the statutory 35-hour working week.

Bearing in mind that this person only ever had 21 days of annual leave when they worked in the UK, this holiday policy seems wildly generous, insane even, given the current state of the French economy. American friends have pointed out that this allocation exceeds the total amount of maternity leave awarded to many American women after the birth of their child, which is, after all, an exceptional event. And yet my friend is awarded these 51 days every single year, without having to go anywhere near an epidural or a squalling infant.

It seems that the employer in question is beginning to experience mild unease about their previous generosity with regards to holiday days because, recently, a consultation was launched within the company with a view to cutting down on the total number of RTT days a person could take each year, bringing the total number of days spent away from the office down to 42.

Whilst my friend has never actually been heard to grumble about the fact that he is permitted not to work on 51 working days each year, he has faced this consultation with considerable relief. It was, after all, difficult for him to get his job done in the paltry few working days remaining to him after he had finished sunning himself on the beach, throwing himself down the mountain, or just lounging in liberty at home.

The distressing result of too much holiday
The distressing result of too much holiday

Not so his colleagues. Oh no. The proposed reduction in holiday allowance is, it turns out, an infringement on their personal liberté, and a severe breach in fraternité on the part of management. How dare their company suggest that they eek out their existence with merely double the holiday allowance of their British counterparts, or quadruple that of colleagues in the US? Can you think of anything more appalling? Or cruel?

All-staff meetings have been held. Whereas in the UK, employees might have voiced their discontent with some tight-lipped remarks before having recourse to their Stiff Upper Lip, in France these are out-and-out shouting matches. People are angry. They express their dissatisfaction loudly, and with feeling. It is a miracle that chairs are not thrown. They are contemplating taking to the streets to air their grievances more widely. Surely the general public will sympathise with their appalling plight… 42 days’ holiday, putin. No doubt soon they will be forced, forced, I say, to go en grève.

The British might be masters of the sotto voce grumble (my husband used to suffer in mortified silence as I muttered audibly about the way that my fellow tube passengers had just barged in front of me), but for the French, complaints are something to be shouted from the rooftop. Never, ever, give the impression that your situation is satisfactory or comfortable: if you do, who knows what they might decide to deprive you of next…

10 thoughts on “Mustn’t grumble

  1. You know when they are at lycée (15yrs to 18yrs) they are taught how to strike? With parental permission they are let off lessons, bussed into the local big town and encouraged to manifest together. I guess you have to get that hard-done-by attitude and argumentative spirit ready before they become employees! #AllAboutFrance

    1. Tee hee! Whereas in the UK kids were traditionally taught a stiff upper lip by being forced to wear short trousers all year round…

  2. Hello! I have to say that the one French stereotype that hasn’t held true in my experience is that French people are big complainers. I don’t know if I just don’t notice it or the people I talk to are usually in a good mood at the gym (really the only place I socialize), but I don’t notice the French complaining any more or less than any other nationality I’ve ever met.

    Maybe they do complain and I just consider it chitchat, matter-of-fact talk and a part of life and not a negative thing? I’m going to pay more attention. I love all your posts. 😉 And yeah my husband has something like 51 days of vacances w/the RTT. #allaboutfrance

    1. That’s really interesting as all I see is complaining – about politics, the economy, jobs, local shops, the education system… I too will look closely for the other side of the coin…

  3. I would change the title to ‘Must Grumble’ as this is just such an essentially French thing to do. And I say that as someone who very often does the same on my blog about the French. In fact, I have found in myself a deep connection with mes confrères in that complaining, frequently and volubly, does not equate with being miserable. On the contrary, it a sign of good health and happiness!

  4. My French other half works for a small company and basically cannot take more than a week off at a time, and in a year maybe 15 days in total. But he prides himself on not being a ‘typical Frenchman’ (he is). The bit about the manner of complaining made me laugh, having just come out of a meeting in Calcutta where at the end of it everyone started shouting – in English, for my benefit. But they weren’t angry, just making a point and then trying to be heard. It was serious, and I didn’t giggle I wish I could have.

  5. I know it’s a national trait to complain (and I remember being taught the language of complaints in French classes – in France at a French school, it wasn’t a French bashing thing, it was so that we’d know how to cope) but I honestly don’t think regular French folk complain more than most other nationalities I know. The English aren’t known as “wingeing poms” in Australia for nothing after all! And you know what, whatever my nationality I’d complain if my holidays got reduced! I think the French have the right attitude to work/life balance and find it ridiculous that Americans and Brits, to a lesser extent, live to work rather than work to live. Thanks for linking up to #AllaboutFrance

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