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TFI Daily News

World News for World Changers

Oct 21

Hard Work, Long Hours: French Find Chinese Recipe Sour

Reuters, October 20, 2013

PARIS—A newspaper open on the bar of this Paris cafe tells of a row over France’s Sunday trading rules. But the bar owner, Zhang Chang, says he has little time to follow such debates. He’s too busy working.

While French workers worry the country’s long economic downturn could mean the end of laws banning Sunday trading and enforcing a 35-hour week, Zhang and Chinese immigrants like him are quietly getting ahead the old-fashioned way—11 hours a day, six days a week.

"As I see it, when you work, you’re paid. So why stop at 35 hours?" he asks, perplexed by France’s landmark law which shaved four hours off the statutory working week in the late 1990s.

Zhang owns the Cafe Le Marais in central Paris and is part of a wave of entrepreneurial migrants from China’s coastal Wenzhou region who are taking over France’s “bar tabac” business. They are doing it by sweat and sacrifice—and by navigating restrictive labour rules, focusing on the bar and restaurant sector that is exempt from the 35-hour rule and the Sunday trading ban, unlike many other industries.

That approach, and their work ethos, runs counter to the work-life balance long treasured by many French and vigorously defended by their unions over the past century—but it chimes with others who say it may be time for a change.

Some 71 percent of French said in a recent Ifop poll they would be willing to work Sundays if their pay was boosted. And many white-collar French workers and business-owners say that in reality they already work much longer than 35 hours a week.

However President Francois Hollande, unwilling to raise the unions’ ire, has so far defended the ban on Sunday trading and, despite a reform this year that eased some rigidity in labour rules, has sidestepped the issue of the 35-hour work week.

While the debate continues, the Chinese plough on.

"We the Chinese think all the unemployment is because people can’t work enough," said Xiao, a restaurant owner who declined to give her last name as she dished out Wenzhou specialities such as chewy stir-fried rice cake and beef hot pot to young Paris professionals.

Even the dining habits of the French reveal a lack of get up and go, she added. “I have people who linger for three hours after they’re done eating. It drives me crazy!”

The success of Zhang and Xiao is just another sign of China’s growing presence in France, alongside the Asian nation’s ownership of famed vineyards, its billion-euro holdings in blue-chips such as energy firm GDP Suez and the daily busloads of Chinese tourists spending hard in Paris department stores.

Zhang arrived in 1996 without working papers and—like most of the 150,000 Wenzhou immigrants who came in the 1980s and 90s—worked off-the-books jobs until he obtained his green card. That’s a classic pattern among Wenzhou immigrants, who have formed the economic engine of France’s Asian community, says researcher Richard Beraha, author of “China in Paris.”

"They don’t expect anything from the French state, since they learned to stay hidden, often arriving without papers," he said. "Unemployment in France is of little concern, because essentially they’re all entrepreneurs. It’s a state of mind."

Many are pouring their energies into bar-tabacs—a focal point of French life where locals can drink, buy cigarettes and bet on horses that is being abandoned by many French owners on the grounds it is too labour-intensive for too little profit. Sixty percent of the businesses for sale in Paris are being purchased by Asian buyers, most of them Chinese, said Gerard Bohelay, head of the Paris federation of bar-tabac owners.

"I’m the only one left," sighed Patrick Loubiere, whose parents were among many French country people from the central Auvergne region to seek a better life in Paris. They set up Le Celtic bar-tabac, near Zhang’s Le Cafe Marais, that he now runs.

"The younger generation doesn’t want to do it," added Loubiere, who doubts his son will take over the business. "It’s too early in the morning for some, too late at night for others. They’re getting lazy."

The takeover has irritated some locals who say it’s easier to find bok choy than baguettes in some areas, and protest the reluctance of some Chinese bar-tabac owners to serve French food along with beer and cigarettes.

There are signs that French attitudes to longer working hours are starting to shift. In a first for the country, workers from home improvement (DIY) chains recently took to the streets to protest a court ruling ordering them to close on Sunday, when many other stores are also banned from trading. Employees of cosmetics store Sephora are also campaigning to overturn another ruling, which forbade its Champs Elysees outlet to stay open until midnight.

But that urge to work is something Bohelay of the bar-tabac group warned needed to be more in evidence in France.

"People aren’t hungry here anymore," he said. "But they’re going to have to get back to work, because the new immigrants are ready to work twice as hard, for twice as long, and they will end up being the bosses."