Dispatches From the Welfare State

Boo to the Boulangerie

The Parisian shopping experience is fun for tourists. But if you live here, it’s a nightmare.

In this series, an American in Paris pits the French welfare state against the U.S. market economy in five key categories: childbirth and health care, preschool, higher education, immigration, and shopping. Read all the entries in the series here.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Though the French are justifiably famous for their cuisine, an American living in Paris can sometimes run across the most bizarre fast food. The other day I saw an ad for Pizza Mare, a frozen pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, and … tuna, smoked salmon, and shrimp. Why, I thought, would people eat this in France? Maybe this was an ad aimed at Paris’ large Muslim population, who wouldn’t be able to eat pizza with pepperoni or sausage? Was it my American-tinted glasses that made these toppings look weird? Or do French people just have really odd taste in frozen pizza?

Being a consumer in France has its share of strange moments that are made even stranger by the basic similarities between our two countries. We’re two modern, developed Western nations, so why do my weekly errands here seem so different than they were in New York City?

For example: I’ve lived in Paris for three years now, and I still have no idea when stores are open. There are no real set opening hours, or none that I know of. There are a few rules: Most businesses are closed two days a week; just about everything is closed part or all of Sunday; things that are open Sunday morning are often closed Monday; food and wine shops are often closed between 1 and 4 p.m.; many restaurants are only open between noon and 3 p.m.; government offices close at 5 p.m. except on Thursday when they are open until 7 or 8 p.m. … you get the idea. A lot of rules, but seemingly no logic.

When I lived in New York, my family’s grocery shopping consisted of one trip per week to Fairway, where we bought everything—meat, cheese, beer, Saran wrap, toilet paper, coffee, and aspirin—all under one roof. Or if we were busy, I’d order our groceries online from FreshDirect. Here in Paris, such convenience is impossible. The local grocery store sells basic staples, except for meat, fish, aspirin, brown rice, or parsley. For meat and fish, you must go to the butcher and fishmonger, respectively. For aspirin, you must go to the pharmacie. For brown rice—oh, and also peanut butter—you have to go to a health food store. And ditto to separate stores for the parsley (the primeur, or greengrocer), coffee, and any other “specialty” items.

I know, I know—I just sound like a bourgeois complainer. Isn’t this the joy of living in Paris, all the little boulangeries and fromageries where you can buy your baguette and brie from actual French people? As a tourist experience, I’m sure it’s great. For a modern double-income family, though, it’s a disaster.

But here’s the thing: France, fundamentally, is not a country where the customer is always right. It’s not very interested in customer satisfaction. What it’s interested in are satisfied workers.

Once you understand this set of priorities, France’s bizarre shopping customs begin to make more sense. All hourly-wage employees in France are entitled to two full days off per week, which is why many smaller stores close for two days if they can’t rotate staff. Businesses are legally prohibited from opening on Sunday afternoons in order to prevent larger stores from having an unfair advantage over smaller ones. Large, Walmart-style superstores are not allowed within the walls of Paris, to preserve the city’s many mom-and-pop boulangeries and fromageries. You can only buy aspirin at a pharmacie and the local newspaper at the presse, again to protect each of these sectors from larger retailers. Book prices are fixed by the publisher—to prevent the massive discounting that Barnes and Noble pioneered and that Amazon perfected—and as a result, the independent bookstore scene in Paris is thriving.

In the U.S., we have a pretty ambivalent view of this kind of protectionism. We seem happy to engage in it when it comes to agriculture and manufacturing, but not in the world of retail. The kinds of protections the French government offers to workers and small businesses might seem to us like crazy talk, socialism, an outright undermining of the rightfully omnipotent and omniscient free market.

And I’m not going to lie to you—there are some obvious problems with France’s worker protections. France is ranked 71st in the world in labor market efficiency, partly because it’s way too difficult to lay off or fire employees, even for cause, which makes hiring difficult as well (this is something I’ve written about previously). The level of taxation on small businesses is way too high. I’ve just started a small business of my own, and while the deductions are more generous than in the States, my social charges and taxes will come to between 45 and 50 percent. Of course, I benefit immediately from the public spending my tax dollars subsidize, with child care subsidies, free preschool, and essentially free health care. But still, it’s very hard to get rich in France. Additionally, France is experiencing some of the same problems the U.S. is having in truly facing up to entitlement reform, which it must do.

But it cannot be denied that low-wage workers in France are treated more fairly than they are in the U.S. In addition to a national minimum hourly wage, called SMIC, there’s also a minimum monthly wage for salaried employees, which prevents the kind of part-time, on-call status many hourly workers find themselves navigating in the States. Everyone in France receives basic health insurance, and all tax-paying families are eligible for some form of child care assistance.

That’s not to say France is a paradise for the poor—far from it. But France does have a fundamentally different perspective on what workers deserve.

Here’s another example. Large businesses in France often provide their employees with a subsidized lunch in a cantine, or a cafeteria—my husband works at a large research institute, and he eats a subsidized meal in their cantine most days, which costs him around 3 or 4 euros.* If a company doesn’t have a cantine, it usually provides its workers with Ticket Restaurant, a subsidized meal ticket that can be used at local restaurants, sandwich shops, and supermarkets as cash. A portion of this ticket is paid by the employee, usually 50 to 60 percent, but not over euro 5.29 per ticket; the remainder is paid by the employer. Many restaurants price their daily lunch menu around the cost of a Ticket Resto as part of their business model, so that for between 8 and 12 euros a customer can get a traditional French lunch of entrée-plat-dessert/coffee. (Tip: This is why lunch is always the best bargain in French restaurants.)

The concept of Ticket Resto absolutely floored my husband and me when we first moved to Paris. Now we knew why all the restaurants were full at lunch time! Now we knew why all the restaurants were full at lunch time: because companies were receiving government tax breaks by offering subsidized meal tickets to their employees. This felt like a shocking amount of government involvement even to progressive American Democrats like us.

A French friend saw it differently. “But why should you have to be rich to eat at a restaurant?” she asked. She saw these Ticket Restos as a great leveling factor in the workforce, allowing low-wage workers to rub elbows with higher-level colleagues—to sit at the table and enjoy a real meal, rather than being relegated to McDonald’s or other affordable fast-food joints. These thoughts hadn’t occurred to me. While the Ticket Resto certainly hasn’t eliminated the class structure here, the fact that an equalizing rationale lay behind it surprised me. It’s something I can’t see us ever thinking about in the U.S., certainly not to the extent of creating a national program.

Even France is not immune to the idea of striking a better balance between keeping workers happy and making sure companies are productive: President Francois Hollande recently announced unpopular austerity measures aimed at helping the growth of French business, though much of the financial press argued that Hollande’s proposals don’t go nearly far enough. But in the U.S., we have swung very far to the side of privileging company profits over all else to the detriment of low-wage workers, who are working more for less money than their counterparts of 20 years ago. Income inequality in the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years, while France is one of the few developed countries where the gap between rich and poor has remained nearly unchanged. Ironically, the possibility for social mobility in France is greater now than it is in America, despite the American notion that anyone can make it if they just work hard enough. I don’t love paying tons of taxes, but the social protections that come with them guarantee my place in the middle class. It’s less likely that I’ll ever become a millionaire in France, but it’s also much less likely I’ll end up in poverty.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go draw up a list of when the stores are open in my neighborhood.

Correction, Feb. 4, 2014: This piece originally stated that French businesses are legally required to provide their salaried employees with lunch. In fact, French companies are only required to provide their employees with a separate area in which to eat lunch; many satisfy this requirement by offering subsidized meals in a cantine and/or by offering subsidized meal tickets that can be used at local eateries. The article also suggested that the French government directly subsidizes employees’ meal tickets; in fact, businesses receive government tax breaks for subsidizing these meal tickets. (Return.)