How Jeb Bush restored French honor

Story highlights

  • Jeb Bush has apologized for comparing the U.S. Senate to a "French work week"
  • James Shields: His remarks do a positive service to France by offering a chance to set facts straight

James Shields is professor of French politics and modern history at Aston University in the United Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Never let the facts get in the way of a good jibe. Or a bad one.

Jeb Bush has apologized for comparing the U.S. Senate to a "French work week" requiring only three days' attendance of his presidential rival, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
    The remark, made during the recent GOP debate, was widely reported in France and drew a rare rebuke from the French ambassador in Washington, Gérard Araud, who tweeted less than diplomatically: "A French work week of 3 days? No but a pregnancy paid leave of 16 weeks yes! And proud of it."
    There is, of course, a long Anglo-Saxon tradition of sneering at the Gallic way of doing things. The French have even coined a name for it: "le French bashing."
    James Shields
    After his swipe at the French work ethic, however, Bush seems keen to make amends. So he has issued a mea culpa, acknowledging, according to Time magazine, that he "totally insulted an entire country" and "did a huge disservice to France."
    But did he? The answer has to be no, since his remarks do a positive service to France by offering a chance to set a few facts straight. So let's do just that.
    The French officially work a 35-hour week, but this is just a threshold beyond which employers are obliged to pay overtime or offer rest days in return for extra hours worked. And very many employees do work more hours.
    According to Eurostat figures for 2014, full-time employees in France work on average 40.5 hours per week compared with 41.5 hours in Germany and across the European Union as a whole. In terms of hours worked in the year, the French average 1,473, exceeding the Germans on 1,371 but far from the 1,789 hours worked on average in the United States.
    And what about time away from work? When it comes to paid vacation, the United States and France occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. A report in 2013 on statutory paid vacation requirements across the world's richest countries found the United States to be the only one that did not require employers to provide paid vacation time.
    The same report showed France to have the most lavish provision with 30 work days of paid vacation annually. This gulf in paid leave entitlement goes a long way to explaining why employees in the United States work so many more hours in the year than their French counterparts.
    So how does France fare on that ultimate measure of output for input that we call "productivity," or goods and services produced? Really rather well.
    For gross domestic product per hour worked, figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show French workers to be among the most productive in the EU, outperformed only by workers in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Average workforce productivity in France was valued last year at $64 per hour, compared with an OECD average of $49 and an EU average of $49.90. German productivity comes in marginally lower at $63.50. And if workers in the United States come out as more productive at $67.40, workers in the United Kingdom lag way behind French workers at $49.20.
    So there we have it.
    The French do work and they do produce. They also enjoy the most generously funded vacation entitlement in the developed world. Fewer employees work very long hours than in the United States, with more time devoted to leisure and personal care. And if they are less productive than their U.S. colleagues while they are working, the French stand a better chance of living longer once they stop.
    Has France's impugned national honor been restored then? Ambassador Araud was quick to accept Bush's apology, tweeting in a blend of English and Latin: "Everything is forgotten and forgiven. Errare humanum ..."
    To err may indeed be human. But a presidential hopeful would do better to be known for getting things right than to be forgiven for getting them wrong.