Even if your knowledge of France and French culture and customs is limited to what Emily in Paris has taught you, then you would know that it is very common to see French people filling up restaurants and bistros during lunch hour and spending more than an hour eating and drinking.
This might come as a mini-cultural shock for the majority of the world who are so used to ‘working lunches’, a nicer sounding word for scarfing down a bowl of salad in front of an opened spreadsheet on your laptop screen.
NPR reports that there’s a French labour code that prohibits workers from eating lunch in the workplace. The country has a strong reputation for enjoying the finer things in life, including a work-life balance, and the culture prizes a change of pace during an average workday where people can take a break to enjoy their food.
Food-culture historian Martin Bruegel charts it back to the 1890s, where he believes this practice originated from. Speaking to NPR, Bruegel explained that workplaces during that time were full of health hazards. As cities grew and more workers travelled across the country to factories, their eating habits changed. Lunch pails became a common sight at the workplace. But these factories were riddled with sanitation issues, not to forget hazards like airborne tuberculosis and chemical fumes.
The government began to look for a solution to contain this rapid spread of diseases at workplaces. Ultimately, their answer came in the form of the Great French Lunch Break, or la pause déjeuner. It was simple, get people to go outside for an hour or so every day and open the windows during that time to get rid of the germs.
Initially, this idea was protested because it meant that a huge bunch of people would spill onto the streets at the same time causing its own share of problems. “There was harassment of women in the streets. The first women’s strike was actually carried out by the seamstresses demanding the right to eat in their workplace,” said Bruegel, “Eating outside was unseemly, they said. One female labor inspector noted in her report of 1901 that women saw the enforcement of the law as ‘tyrannical’.”
But eventually, people started seeing the merit of stepping outside their workplaces for lunch and it became a part of French culture.
But while it might have been considered sacrosanct, the government had to press pause on the practice (and law!) during the pandemic. In February 2021, the French Labour Ministry paused the lunchbreak law so that it can ensure that large gatherings of people do not happen in public. When social distancing restrictions started easing up, many people felt that the ‘pause’ could be made permanent but it was met with protests.
People argued that these lunch breaks were good for their health and actually increased productivity. Bruegel, one of the many who protested, argued that this practice was not only good for your mind and body, but also for society. “People who eat together are able to talk about issues, and they can work out tensions or different opinions. They create a culture in which having different points of view is possible.”
The protesters won and the lunch law suspension expired this year. The French are back to filling up restaurants at mid-day and taking a break from work.
Have French people managed to crack the code on maintaining a healthy work-life balance? We can’t say for sure. But we’re all here for hour-long scenic lunches. What do you think?