As of 2015, the general stereotype that the French are somewhat lazy and work little is well established worldwide. Indeed, on this site, I have repeatedly commented on the “non-employment society”, the 35 hour week, etc. For some economists, this is the natural result of regulations and of the very high tax rate on labor which prevails in the country. For others, it is at least in part due to French preferences for working less (although why a preference should be embodied in a regulation remains a mystery to me).
While I do believe that taxes have an important effect, I also always thought that if you deregulate the labor market and reduce taxes down to reasonable levels, the French would still work substantially less than Americans.
So here is a little quiz that may help shed light on this question: what is the average number of hours worked per employed in France in 1950, and in the US?
The answer can be gotten off the shelf from the Penn World Table, and it comes as a big surprise: in 1950, a French employee was working 2158 hours per year, and his american counterpart was working 1900 hours per year on average! Furthermore, the employment/population ratio in the U.S. was 40 %, while it was equal to 46 % in France. The non-employment society, then, if anything, was the US, not France.
In 2011, the French was working 1475 hours a year, and his American counterpart 1700 hours. The French employment/population ratio was down to 41 %, the American one had gone up to 45 %. And this cannot be due to differences in female participation rates, they are virtually identical between the two countries at close to 69 % in 2011.
As a result, French society was providing 1000 hours of work per person in 1950, and it is down to 600. In the US, there were 760 hours of work per person in 1950, and in 2011 it is slightly up to 771.
When did French workers start working less in a given year than American ones? You cannot make this up: In 1982, 1 year after the first socialist/communist coalition came into power.
Therefore, there is no inherent French preference for working less. Rather, skilled politicians managed to put together coalitions of people who increasingly lived off (and therefore supported) a zero sum redistributive game. As a response to that, the population gradually learned to refrain from wealth creation. Perhaps it may become a second nature after a while, but let us not be too pessimistic.