Get rid of that fork! France bans eating at your desk

This story was adapted from Rough Translation's latest episode.

10 June 2022 Friday 23:33
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Get rid of that fork! France bans eating at your desk

This story was adapted from Rough Translation's latest episode. Listen to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or NPR One.

Although eating a salad at work may not be the most memorable lunch, it is still possible to get some work done. It's illegal in France.

French labor codes prohibit workers from having lunch at work. In a culture that values a change of scenery and pace, the solo lunch is not allowed.

The French lunch break was not always about bistro meals, leisurely meals, and 90 minutes of friendly conversation. Many workers initially rejected the idea that they should leave the workplace.

What was it that the French needed to finally give up?

The French lunch break was almost killed by a public health crisis in France.

Martin Bruegel, a food-culture historian, makes this argument.

He says, "The 1890s workplace was full of health hazards."

Their eating habits changed as cities expanded and more people had to commute to the factories. Traditional midday meals were eaten at home but now they can be ordered online. Lunch pails were becoming more common in the workplace. French fries from local markets were a treat every once in a while. The factory floor was where most of the actual eating took place.

Imagine workers picking at food in matchbook factories, seamstress sweatshops, and warehouses full heavy machinery. These work places were full of germs and airborne tuberculosis, as well as phosphorus fumes. "Even in departmental stores, there were more germs and microbes per square foot than outside."

In his essay "Covid-19 Workday Lunch and The French Labor Code", Bruegel explored the relationship between the Industrial Revolution (and the Great French Lunch Break)

Doctors discussed ways to remove toxins from dirty work spaces as diseases spread.

You had to first get rid of the people. Bruegel explains that the saying went, "We have to flush our work sites as much as we flush the toilets." What is the best time for that? It is usually after people eat!

The government's solution: Ban lunch at work. Take the people outside, then open the windows to get rid of germs. This was the inspiration behind the 1894 Decree that prohibited lunch at work.

But there was another law: the law of unforeseeable consequences. Bruegel points to the fact that people would flood into crowded streets and littered park areas.

"There was harassment on the streets of women. According to Bruegel, the first women's strike was actually organized by seamstresses who wanted the right to eat at their workplaces. They said that eating outside was not appropriate. In her 1901 report, a female labor inspector stated that women considered the enforcement of the law "tyrannical."

Legislators demanded that the law be kept. Safety of workers was at risk. Over the years, what was a public health order requiring aEUR' lunch outside of work became a part of French culture. It's common to see lunchtime patrons fill the bistros and restaurants as workplaces close. It's almost impossible to separate work from lunch.

Take a look at the recent protest at Bruegel’s institute, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, about the proposal to introduce brown-bag seminars in American style. He said that lunchtime seminars were socially regressive and intellectually insufficient because they provided a break from work.

Ninety minutes of free-flowing conversation and perhaps a glass or two of wine.

The government then ordered workers to return to their desks.

The lunch-break law was temporarily suspended in February 2021 for safety reasons. The law was the subject of a public debate.

Bruegel fought back and wrote that the law was essential to France aEUR", but not for obvious reasons. He says that people are simply happier when they have some downtime during work hours. It's good for their health.

He is quick to emphasize that the lunch break can lead to better health outcomes. It can make workers more productive. He argues that there is a deeper philosophical point. Lunch breaks are not only good for employees or their companies. It's also good for society.

People who eat together can talk about problems and work out differences. They foster a culture where people can have different views.

It's the lunch hour that drives conviviality. A place for serendipity. Public good.

Bruegel's side won the day. This year, the suspension of lunch law was lifted. French workers are returning to the shared meal as a daily ritual, creating a space they can make their own while also sharing it with one another.

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