A French law mandated work-life balance, an American struggled to adapt. : Planet Money For many Americans, desk lunches are the norm. You might even be having one right now. But what if it didn't have to be this way? | Fill out our listener survey here

Let them eat lunch

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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Alexi, can you hear me?


Gregory Warner, of Rough Translation fame, I read you loud and clear.

WARNER: All right. Well, thanks so much for making this lunchtime meeting work. Did you get something to eat, by the way?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah. I cobbled together a pretty sad vending machine lunch. I've got my chips and my little granola snack here.



HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You got yours?

WARNER: I'm with you. I got some leftovers from dinner, and also my breakfast, all piled up on a salad-like thing for lunch here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So what are we doing here? Why are we lunching in the studio?

WARNER: Yes. So over at Rough Translation, we have been working on a story that is all about what we are doing right now, which is eating lunch at our desks, talking about work. And this is something many folks across the United States do on most days without thinking twice.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Sadly, all the time.

WARNER: (Laughter) But, Alexi, it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, one of our listeners in France told us about a very different approach to work lunch culture there - so different, in fact, that it was creating a kind of workplace cultural challenge for her that, well, when we heard about it, we just had to try to solve.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

WARNER: And I'm Gregory Warner.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: All right, Greg. So today on the show, you are taking us to France for a little cross-cultural tete-a-tete over work, life and lunch.

WARNER: That's right, Alexi, and we start at lunchtime in Paris.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

WARNER: Chefs are chalking up their menus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

WARNER: Waiters are setting tables.


WARNER: Wines carafes are stacked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking French).

WARNER: Customers choose their hors d'oeuvres.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking French).

WARNER: And scenes like this are playing out in bistros and canteens across France.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking French). (Laughter).

WARNER: Meanwhile, in her office at the University of Strasbourg, an English teacher named Kaitlin Plachy furtively pokes her head into the hallway. Seeing no one, she carefully clicks the door closed, returns to her desk. She pulls out a salad and records this voice memo.

KAITLIN PLACHY: Hi, ROUGH TRANSLATION team. My name is Kaitlin. I am sitting in my office hiding because it's lunchtime. At lunchtime in France, people generally take an hour and a half or two hours and eat and try not to talk about work. But I come from the U.S., and I love a productive lunch (laughter). There's even a law in France that forbids workers from eating at their desk, and that is my workplace cultural challenge (laughter). Thanks so much.

WARNER: Wait. What'd she say?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's forbidden.

WARNER: There's a law against eating lunch at your desk.

KATZ LASZLO, BYLINE: Can you read this sentence for me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Speaking French).

WARNER: We were so struck by this idea that we sent our reporter Katz Laszlo to various bistros in Paris with a copy of the French Labor Code.

LASZLO: Did you know that that was a law?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Yeah, it's really needed (laughter).

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I love to eat.

WARNER: So we called back Kaitlin, the listener who sent us that voicemail.

PLACHY: Well, I hope you realize that I realize this is the pettiest thing that I could write you about.

WARNER: (Laughter).

PLACHY: My lunch break is too long and too relaxing.


WARNER: She told us she's been living in France since she graduated seven years ago. She's engaged to be married this summer to a French guy. So she's here in France for the long haul, and she doesn't want to have to feel like a criminal every time she checks off her to-do list at lunch. Kaitlin says she has been a rebel against the French lunch break since her first job in France.

PLACHY: Take your lunch break literally meant, like, go outside. And sometimes, the weather was terrible. And in the first week, I didn't have any friends. And so I would eat my lunch quickly and then, like, make laps around the neighborhood. Like, what are you supposed to do?


PLACHY: You can't come back to your desk.

WARNER: And what would be, actually, the punishment for coming back to your desk?

PLACHY: It was just really looked down on. My boss at the time did explain to me, I think you're not appreciating the full length of time that you should be taking for lunch.

WARNER: (Laughter) It's like the opposite of a conversation with a boss you might expect, right?

PLACHY: Indeed (laughter). It was.

WARNER: To lunch longer.

PLACHY: Right.


WARNER: Now, I'm not sure we've ever gotten such a clear cry for help at Rough Translation. So after the break, we dig into the origin of this law and try to convince one American in Paris to leave work at work.

PLACHY: If you succeed, whereas all of the French people in my life have not succeeded, this would be impressive.

WARNER: OK, we have it on record (laughter). Here we go.


WARNER: Kaitlin, our American listener in France, was quick to point out that she does not have a problem with long lunch breaks on occasion.

PLACHY: I can appreciate spending time in a specific way and saying, OK, for two hours, we're putting it all aside. We're not looking at our phones. We're not talking about work. And that's good. But I just don't want someone to dictate that I have to do that every day.

WARNER: When our reporter Katz Laszlo interviewed lunchgoers at two bistros, almost no one was surprised that the country would have such a law.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking French).

WARNER: They said, this is just French tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking French).

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

Good to meet you, professor.

MARTIN BRUEGEL: Oh, you can say Martin.

WARNER: Professor Martin Bruegel is a food culture historian at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

BRUEGEL: Jeepers. There is a law that regulates how we sit down to eat during the work day.

WARNER: He got very interested in the origins of the French lunch law. The story Martin tells begins in the wake of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. 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.

WARNER: Thermometer-makers got mercury poisoning. People worried about workers' life expectancy.

BRUEGEL: There was dust. There were fumes.

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

WARNER: And so legislators passed a new decree.

BRUEGEL: Article 8 (laughter) 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, which became a problem in itself.

WARNER: Which led to other problems.

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

BRUEGEL: (Laughter).

WARNER: ...Like, a czar of hygiene or something?

BRUEGEL: (Laughter) No. It had much to do with the political structure in France. 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: But did the law, you feel, solidify that?

BRUEGEL: I think it does, yeah. One of the aspects that has been neglected in the research on eating times in French history is the impact of the law.

PLACHY: I've definitely had this conversation with my fiance because, at home, we have to decide how we eat, when we eat.

WARNER: Again, our listener, Kaitlin.

PLACHY: And my eating snacks at random times was not conducive to his idea of set meal times. And so he's definitely tried to convince me that this is the better way to go. It hasn't worked yet.

WARNER: It hasn't worked?


WARNER: So what does he - what, if any, arguments has he made?

PLACHY: Well, the whole idea that you eat better if you're not snacking; you appreciate the food; food is meant to be shared with conviviality, and you have to sit down and enjoy it. I hear that. I just don't buy it.

WARNER: Notice the arguments that Kaitlin's fiance does not make. He doesn't say that the reason French adopted this approach is because mechanical ventilation hadn't been invented yet, and they needed to protect worker hygiene. He doesn't make an argument about work at all. His argument is about food and the values around eating it.


WARNER: Martin says this is the great misunderstanding of most French people today - to think that the French lunch break was invented to protect the lunch.

BRUEGEL: I mean, the reason why eating was regulated had nothing to do with the actual content of the plate or so and everything with the environment in which the meal was taken.

WARNER: So maybe the way to help Kaitlin with her workplace cultural challenge was to make a case for the French lunch break that she had not heard before - not about the importance of food and not about the nature of being French, but hard, cold research about why a lunch break outside the job is better for work. The only question was, would Kaitlin buy it?

PLACHY: I came into this totally prepared to defend my American productivity, and I think my argument is crumbling.

WARNER: Rough Translation makes the case after this break.


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

WARNER: In February of 2021...


MARTIN: ...NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.

WARNER: ...Deaths from COVID-19 in France were on the rise.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron is said to be conflicted as he huddles with scientific advisers.

WARNER: The government had closed restaurants. It was telling workers to stay at home.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Speaking French).

WARNER: And so perhaps it was inevitable that 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. And for some conservative commentators...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (Speaking French).

WARNER: ...This was cause for celebration.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: (Speaking French).

WARNER: Why should the government regulate eating? - they said. This is typical bureaucratic overreach, which Martin did not like very much.

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

WARNER: Martin feared that President Macron, heading into an election, might appease the conservatives by abolishing this law permanently, so he sat down at his computer to research the reasons that workers would still need this piece of the labor code in the 21st century. He pored through trade journals, ergonomic studies, happiness research, compiling every scientific argument he could find for lunching outside work.

Hey, Kaitlin, you there?

PLACHY: Yeah. Hi.

WARNER: And so when I called Kaitlin back, I came armed with Martin's research.

Let me make a health argument. A full lunch break tracks with better health outcomes because you're not snacking so much. There's less depression, less burnout, more job satisfaction.

BRUEGEL: I mean, people are just simply happier to take a break during the workday. It's good for their well-being.

WARNER: What do you say to those?

PLACHY: More happiness and job satisfaction - I don't know. I'm pretty happy, and I don't feel overstressed. What stresses me out is when I have to step away, and I know what's on my to-do list, and I can't get anything done on my lunch break.


WARNER: OK - productivity.

PLACHY: I really like productivity.

WARNER: OK. If you like productivity - so here's an argument. The French love to say that, with their 35-hour workweek, they're actually more productive.

BRUEGEL: Much more productive than what is usually said about them.

WARNER: And one of the arguments is this idea of segmented time. So if you know you have to get everything done before noon, and you can't do anything until 1:30, you're going to get everything done in those three hours.

PLACHY: OK. That I buy a little bit because our meetings are incredibly productive. We've shortened the max length of our meetings down to, like, 40 minutes.


WARNER: Case closed? Not so fast.

PLACHY: It's difficult as a teacher because I have classes in the afternoon. And so my colleagues will stay pretty late. They'll stay until 7 trying to get stuff done for the next day. And I'm thinking, you could have done that at lunchtime.

WARNER: Right. You want to get it all done before you leave. OK.


WARNER: So far, I was not doing well. But there was another argument that Martin had mentioned, and actually the argument we heard most often in the French bistros...



WARNER: ...That taking a break with co-workers made work more collaborative.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Of course. Of course. It's a moment of sharing - sharing thoughts, sharing...

LASZLO: They said that it's easier to work together if you understand the way that they think.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: You eat, you drink, and you can understand why.

LASZLO: So you have less conflict.


LASZLO: Like, you have more understanding.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: It makes our relationships stronger, and it's easier for us after that to work together. Like...

LASZLO: And a lot of people said that it made conflict easier. Several people brought that up, actually.

WARNER: OK, new argument - there's fewer conflicts between co-workers when they know each other better in a nonwork way, meaning they've created connections with each other. They know each other as people, not just as colleagues.

PLACHY: That I buy.

WARNER: You do buy?

PLACHY: I buy it. Yeah. My colleagues and I get along really well because I know the names of their spouses and kids, and we talk about life, whereas that hasn't always been the case in other work environments where I haven't taken lunchtime with my colleagues. My colleague - last week, his dad passed away, and I knew every step of the way because every day we would check in. And it definitely helps create community in a way that's not difficult.

WARNER: In every good film noir, there is that moment when the private eye realizes his client has been concealing some key fact that will crack the case. Now, in this case, the key fact that was missing was probably my mistake. I had this image from her voicemail of her eating this secret, solitary salad at her laptop. And so I called Kaitlin on a mission to convince her to share lunchtime with her colleagues, but now I realized I only had half the story. When I asked her to describe her ideal lunch, yeah, it starts with the salad and the to-do list, alone.

PLACHY: So I can eat my salad in peace, get a few things checked off my list, and then the ideal is when, at that moment, my colleagues are coming back from their outside lunch, and they're on their way for coffee time, which is in a separate spot and a separate place. And so I'll join them for the second half. So it's easy for me to say that I love my productive lunch, but I think if I were to go back to a U.S. work environment, I would be shocked and frustrated that we don't have that collective moment.

WARNER: Really?

PLACHY: I think so.

WARNER: That seems - that's interesting. What do you mean? I mean, like, you want to be in a place that has a shared lunch; you just don't always want to share it?

PLACHY: I think that's it.

WARNER: Kaitlin had found a workaround - a way to have her lunch and eat it, too.

PLACHY: Compromise (laughter).

WARNER: I was talking about this with Katz Laszlo, who we sent to the French bistro, and she brought up this other argument.

LASZLO: And maybe another thing that she's missing is interacting with people in different fields.



LASZLO: Yeah. There's, like, a famous actor here...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Right now, I just finished a period film.

LASZLO: ...Who chats with a guy who's on his pension and is really from a whole different working class.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: (Speaking French).

LASZLO: And they know each other, and they talk about their day, and they know what's going on in each other's lives.

(Speaking French).

There was another two people who I, like, walked up and assumed they were mother and son or something, and they were complete strangers who just wound up at the same table and were like, yeah, we're just having lunch together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: (Speaking French).

LASZLO: And I think there's also, like, a sense of community in that.

BRUEGEL: That is, to me, the ideal lunch - where things happen.

WARNER: Martin also makes this case for the value of random encounters on a lunch break. And the funny thing about this argument is that it's not really about making you happier or making you more productive or about greasing the relationship wheels with your co-workers. Martin says that there's just a value to lots of people collectively sharing space at the same time and talking about whatever, with unplanned conversations and unexpected rendezvous that might - just might - spark your next big idea or change your life.

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


WARNER: His love story 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.

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

BRUEGEL: We took lunch together.

WARNER: 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. 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 suspension of the law was allowed to expire. The law was not abolished. It is once again forbidden to eat lunch at your desk in France. Kaitlin told us she's actually OK with that. She's realized she'd rather live in a culture with a custom of shared lunch even if it's not one that she always plans to share.


PLACHY: If I were to conform to everything that French people want me to do, it wouldn't feel like me. There's enough things that are black-and-white in France that you have to do.

WARNER: (Laughter).

PLACHY: So I want some liberty on my lunch time.

WARNER: Give me liberty or - yeah.

PLACHY: Or give me snacks?

WARNER: Give me snacks.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hey, if you've been listening to this podcast on your lunch break - the average lunch break in the U.S. is 36 minutes, which means that if your lunch break ended before the podcast did...

PLACHY: I think you're not appreciating the full length of time that you should be taking for lunch.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Thanks so much to Kaitlin Plachy for sending in that voicemail and taking us on this journey. If you want more workplace culture stories and other great reporting from around the world, subscribe to the Rough Translation podcast.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This episode was produced by Adelina Lancianese, with help from Pablo Arguelles. It was co-reported by Katz Laszlo and edited by Luis Trelles.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The PLANET MONEY version was produced by Dave Blanchard, mastered by James Willetts and edited by Alex Goldmark, who is also PLANET MONEY's executive producer. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Gazi. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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