Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France What the French history of the leisurely lunch break can teach us about separating work from rest.

Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The team at the NPR podcast Rough Translation recently got a voicemail from an American teacher in Strasbourg, France, about a law in that country.

KAITLIN PLACHY: That forbids workers from eating at their desk.

PFEIFFER: Host Gregory Warner tried to figure out where this law comes from.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: We were so struck by this French law that we sent a reporter, Katz Laszlo, to various bistros in Paris armed with a copy of the French labor code.

KATZ LASZLO, BYLINE: Did you know that that was a law?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, it's really needed.

LASZLO: What do you mean by it's really needed?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I love to eat.

WARNER: Lots of people at these cafes told us that to understand this law, you just have to look at French culture. But the real story turns out to be kind of the opposite.

MARTIN BRUEGEL: Jeepers, there is a law that regulates how we sit down to eat during the work day. So that got me started.

WARNER: Professor Martin Bruegel is a food culture historian at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. The story Martin tells begins in the wake of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

BRUEGEL: As the economy developed, the distance between someone's residence and the workplace increased.

WARNER: More and more workers were spending most of their day stuck inside workplaces.

BRUEGEL: Now, workplace in the 1890s, as you might imagine, were health hazards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Thermometer makers got mercury poisoning. Matchbook makers got phossy jaw.

BRUEGEL: There was dust. There were fumes.

WARNER: And it wasn't just the toxic chemicals in factories.

BRUEGEL: Even department stores - they discovered that there were more microbes per cubic feet than outside.

WARNER: People worried about workers' life expectancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Lack of fresh air was seen as a culprit.

BRUEGEL: The saying was that we have to flush the work sites as we flush toilets.

WARNER: Mechanical ventilation wasn't really a thing. So instead, they decided to open the windows.

BRUEGEL: We get the dirt out. When can we do that? What is the best time to do it? Well, it's when people usually eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Lunchtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: And so legislators passed a new decree.

BRUEGEL: Article 8 said that work sites had to be ventilated during eating breaks.

WARNER: Shut down the machines.

BRUEGEL: And Article 9 said work sites had to be evacuated during eating breaks.

WARNER: Get the people outside and open the windows to let the air in. That was the big public health insight of 1894. And, man, was it controversial.

BRUEGEL: So people would spill over into the street.

WARNER: Which led to other problems.

BRUEGEL: Crowded streets, littered parks, harassment of women in the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRUEGEL: The first women's strike, actually, by the seamstresses was about the right to eat in their workplace.

WARNER: A female labor inspector commented in her yearly report for 1901 the enforcement of this law, quote, "appears tyrannical to the women and girls who, living far from their workplace, have taken up the habit of bringing in their already prepared lunch."

BRUEGEL: They wanted to go back because they thought that eating in the street was not seemly and eating in restaurants was too expensive for them.

WARNER: What was the argument on the other side? Was there some very determined immunologist? Was there a Tony Fauci of the - of France who was like a czar of hygiene or something?

BRUEGEL: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRUEGEL: It had much to do with the political structure in France. You know, it's very centralized. It also happens that there was a heavy deputation of doctors in the national assembly.

WARNER: Doctors armed with legislative power in an assembly that was just, let's point out, all men. The seamstresses would protest for 10 years before they'd get some exception to the law. But meanwhile, restaurants and workers started to adjust, and people's food habits started to change.

BRUEGEL: The moments in the day when the French eat are extremely codified. I mean, you have breakfast between 7 and 8:30, lunch between noon and 1:30, 2. That you can observe throughout the 20th century.

WARNER: Cut to the 21st century and another public health crisis.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The virus is hitting Europe with its full force.

WARNER: In February of 2021, deaths from COVID-19 in France were on the rise. The government had closed restaurants. It was telling workers to stay at home. And so perhaps it was inevitable. The lunch break law, born in one public health crisis, was suspended in another. France would no longer require people to leave work during lunch. Martin understood the reasons but worried that when it was safe to gather, this law would not be reinstated.

BRUEGEL: I felt it was my responsibility as a historian but also as a citizen.

WARNER: He started to research all the reasons that workers might still need this piece of the labor code. And he wrote an essay where he argued that a shared lunch makes workers happier. And there's one other case he makes. It wasn't so much based in the science as in his own observation - that there is a value to lots of people collectively sharing space at the same time with unplanned conversations that just might spark your next big idea or change your life.

Is there any breakthrough or anything that's happened for you that wouldn't have happened without the shared lunch?

BRUEGEL: I might not have met my wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: What is the story of how you met your wife, if you don't mind telling?

BRUEGEL: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: His love story...

BRUEGEL: How do you say marionette?

WARNER: ...Starts with a student of puppets.

BRUEGEL: She was working at the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions to look at traditional puppets.

WARNER: She catches the eye of a food culture researcher.

BRUEGEL: And I happened to go through there looking at popular food habits. And I saw her. And I approached.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: But Martin does not want to be so bold as to just ask her out on a date. Enter...

BRUEGEL: (Speaking French).

WARNER: ...Shared lunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRUEGEL: We took lunch together.

WARNER: The social cost is lowered. He doesn't have to ask her out. He can just join her and her friends.

BRUEGEL: And so that's how we got to know each other.

WARNER: You're saying the custom of the shared lunch gave you the courage to ask her out on a date.

BRUEGEL: And the possibility also (laughter). See, there is a lot going on in meals. From lunch, you can go to dinner and to the movies and the rest is history (laughter).

WARNER: The history of rest, as Martin wrote it in his defense of the French lunch law, was followed by his hoped-for outcome. The lunch break was not abolished. It is once again forbidden to eat lunch at your desk in France.

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