French heed call to stand up - er, sit down and start a revolution

A new book called 'Hello Laziness' has climbed France's bestseller lists.

In the country that practically invented joie de vivre - the joy of life - two-hour lunches and 35-hour work weeks fit like a silk beret.

But that life of leisure has come under assault of late. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin says that economic pressures will soon make the shortened work week a thing of the past.

Enter Corinne Maier, author of a hot new bestseller called "Bonjour Paresse" - "Hello Laziness." The humorous pamphlet is a passionate plea in favor of sloth. The subtitle says it all: "The art and necessity of doing the least possible in a corporation." Ms. Maier calls upon the French to sit down and relax at work. The young author has hit a nerve here, tapping into a backlash against the rat race. She promotes a calculated loafing only the French could love. Call it the new French Revolution - or as she says, a revolution from within.

"It's important to do those things in life that you really wish to do, instead of just obeying others," she explains. "Of course you have to work to earn money, so you have to find a compromise. And that might just be to work a little less and find ways to do what you really want to do in life."

Since "Bonjour Paresse" appeared in bookstores in May, the publisher has ordered six successive reprints to meet demand. It is currently in the top five on the main bestseller lists in France.

What started out as a farce has become a serious lamentation on French companies and modern times. As she describes it, French corporate life hasn't changed since the Louis XIV era in the 17th century. The system is extremely hierarchical and fossilized, "Especially the big companies. They're stuck somewhere between an enormous amount of red tape, old-fashioned rituals, and widespread cynicism. And that is a nightmare for the people working there," she says. "They're not free to do anything themselves, they just have to obey all the time."

In her book she describes all that she despises about corporate life: from its jargon all the way up to globalization. If we can't change things from outside, why not ruin it from the inside by doing the least we can, she asks, having gained first-hand knowledge of the business world as a part-time employee of the French electric company EDF.

For the French, buying the book is a form of "protest to Ango-Saxon working standards" that are being pushed upon them, explains Douglas Rosane, an American who heads the Paris office of International Survey Research (ISR), which collects data on the business world. "You've always had the Ango-Saxon model and the Marxist model. France opted for a third road, somewhere in between."

The French government last month presented plans to abolish the officially regulated 35-hour working week, implemented in 2000, to try to reduce France's unemployment rate, which remains a stubbornly high 9.9 percent. Nicolas Sarkozy, France's minister of economic affairs, said in a interview with the newspaper Les Echos that tight restrictions on working hours puts a burden of $19 billion a year on the French government and companies. He said that someone who wants to work harder and earn more should have the opportunity to do so.

France isn't the only European country looking to put its workers' noses to the grindstone. In Spain the government caused a cultural revolution last July proclaiming the abolishment of the siesta. And Germany is pressuring unions to work longer hours as well.

Research by ISR shows that the French are among the most dissatisfied workers in the world's richest economies. Only 55 percent say they have a satisfying job, compared with 65 percent of Americans. One of the main complaints: the workload. But Maier's regimen is not easy. "Doing nothing ... is really hard," she writes. "You have to pretend you're busy all the time."

She's even prepared to take her message across the Atlantic. "The book will be translated into English," she says, "so I might call upon the Americans as well to start being lazy!"

Not everyone has enjoyed the "mini-earthquake" - as one magazine called it - Maier's book has caused. EDF was not amused, considering her an embarrassment to the company and to her fellow employees. The company wrote a letter to Maier accusing her of reading newspapers while in meetings and leaving meetings before they finished.

She was called in for a disciplinary meeting in August, but that was postponed - Maier had already booked her vacation. Last week she finally sat down with her bosses and discussed things. "There will be no sanctions, so that's a victory!" she says triumphantly.

Not that the whole affair is forgotten. "I'm a bit afraid what might happen now," she says. "I got the message that things might get difficult for me at work. Well, let's see what will happen."

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