In the wake of Independence Day, I recognized the irony that several Americans were celebrating our freedom confined behind a sales counter or desk. Businesses used to close each Fourth of July, giving Americans the liberty to celebrate living in the freest country in the world. Now, many corporations stay open for those consumers in dire need of an Urban Outfitters T-shirt or Burgerville shake. When workers are unable to celebrate their freedom, it is time to evaluate if we are indeed the most independent country in the world.
French workers, who will be celebrating their independence on Bastille Day, July 14th, look upon Americans as corporate slaves. America and France have very different employment systems, but the gap between the two is posed to narrow. Unfortunately, America has not decided to free employees from the monotony so that they can spend time with their families and friends. Instead, the newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy intends to Americanize the French workforce. Given the current state of America, this is a step in the wrong direction for France.
In our free nation, American companies are not required to give their employees any vacation time at all. In Europe, many governments mandate paid vacation time. One of the top five economic countries in the world, France, mandates an annual five weeks of paid vacation, plus 12 paid national holidays, including Bastille Day. French citizens prefer to vacation during July and August, leaving bewildered American tourists, at the peak of the tourist season, staring at closed signs in Paris. In France, life and liberty come before money.
Meanwhile, part-time American employees typically don’t qualify for paid vacation time, so they look forward to the occasional Friday night off. On average, full-time workers receive one to two weeks of annual paid vacation, which some feel too guilty to use, even though they are burned out. Those taking advantage sometimes stay home to work on procrastinated household chores and those vacationing cram as many tourist activities feasible into their days off. So while French workers return to work revitalized and inspired, Americans return lethargic and planning their next day off with things they ran out of time for.
Corporations have caught onto Americans attempting to amp their vacation time by calling in sick. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 56 percent of workers receive paid sick time. Plus, most employers allot a number of sick days before administrating corrective action. Considering that common colds last approximately seven to 10 days and the flu last approximately one to two weeks, this is a ridiculous policy. Some employers will accept doctors’ notes to extend unpaid sick time, but many employees cannot afford a doctor’s visit or unpaid time off. As a result, people are coming to work contagious and ineffective. France has universal health care, so when someone is sick they visit a doctor without thinking twice about it.
Additionally, the French cannot work more than 35 hours per week. Taking advantage of this law, they spend long, leisurely lunches socializing at caf퀌�s. They are unable to fathom Americans working excessive overtime and juggling multiple jobs with school. For the most part, French students merely concentrate on their studies sans-employment, making the best of their education. Without the stress-promoted aging that Americans endure, the French have a higher average life expectancy.
But things are about to change. President Sarkozy plans to give France an American touch by decreasing vacation time, approving overtime, lowering unemployment wage and increasing retirement age.
Upon visiting France last September, I anticipated an exotic culture with quaint, family-owned-and-operated caf퀌�s, patisseries, boulangeries and other unique shops. I was dismayed to find these businesses crowded out by the larger, more colorful McDonalds, which the French call “Macdo,” Gap, Virgin Megastore and other familiar stores. If I asked someone a question in French in Paris, they responded in perfect English, not being able to tolerate my butchering their beautiful language. I felt so trivial and trite, so monolingual. Even home, I admire multilingual Americans that can enjoy so many cultures.
As the world increasingly becomes Americanized, I have to ask if America is the best model for the world. Advanced communications shrinking the globe allow the opportunity not just for us to force our culture onto others, but also to learn from them. If each country collaborated and implemented the world’s best ideas while maintaining their distinct cultures, this world would be swiftly improved. With all of their ideas about life and liberty, surely we can import more from France than Evian and Christian Louboutin.