The Revolutionary Work Week

The French are famed for their work week. 35 grueling hours, intermingled with scrumptious lunches, glasses of wine, and the expectation of 6 glorious weeks of summer vacation. Life is pretty good if you are a French worker. But for all the stereotyped fun the rest of us overworked and plainly envious suckers poke at the French, the 35 hour week works well enough for them to build and operate the amazing TGV trains, the mighty Arianne space lifter and the ubiquitous Airbus (the latter two in partnership with their European brethren). Not only is your Dior and Chanel French, but so is your Dannon yogurt and the publisher of your World of Warcraft. And in spite of working less and spending a minimum of five more hours a week on eating and drinking than us Americans, the French aren’t nearly as fat.

The French had experimented with the length of their work week once before in their history, although not in a way you might expect. The revolutionaries who began separating head from aristocrat in 1784, wanted liberation from all the old ways. The scientists and rationalists among them held a particular peeve for the antiquated and often conflicting systems of measurement that hobbled their Age of Reason. With universal divisibility by the number 10 as their sworn goal, these visionaries had, by 1793, introduced the most telling contribution of the French Revolution to the world – the metric system. And they applied it not just to distances and volumes, but also to time. For in the new land of liberty, equality and fraternity, there was to be no place for the 7 day week. In addition to not being a factor of 10, the 7 day week had too many Biblical associations for the religiously neutral revolutionaries (as did the Notre Dame Cathedral, which like other churches, was re-christened a ‘Temple of Reason’). With a quick stroke of a reforming quill, on October 24th 1793, the French National Convention replaced the 7 day week with a 10 day one.

The reforms introduced by The French Republican Calendar were dramatic. A single year was split into 36 10-day weeks. The year continued to have 12 months, but like the lunar calendar, each was assigned an identical 30 days. Sensibly, the 360 day year was eschewed and the remaining 5 or 6 days tacked on at the end of the year as public holidays (what were they thinking?). But there were to be no January, February, March… in this brave new year. The newly liberated months now sported poetic names Germinal and Thermidor. And poor January lost more than its name. The French year now began on the Autumn Equinox. 

Clocks changed radically. No more would they strike 12! Their new faces were now divided into a metric compliant 10 hours! And the hours didn’t pass as quickly either. For 10 hours was all the French gave themselves in a day. The 24 hour day was gone! A day with 10 hours, each hour divided into 100 minutes and each minute into 100 seconds!

The metric system made logical sense in every way. Except when it came to time and the 10 day week. As you were no doubt quick to notice, the biggest implication of the 10 day week was that the weekend only came about every 10 days. The poor French men and women had won their liberty only to be cast into an institutional sweatshop where 9 straight days of work before a day of rest – was the law.

The French Republican Calendar hung around for nearly 12 years, until it was finally abolished by Le Empereur Napoleon in 1805. One day of rest in ten had proven so odious that there was little protest and much celebration at the return of the ancient cycle of seven. And their ancestor’s struggle for a little more rest was not forgotten by the children of modern France. In the year 2000, France wrote into law what everyone knew anyway – that working over lunch gives you indigestion and all work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy. 

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