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Why Desk Lunches Are Illegal In France «


Dan Pashman: It’s lunchtime in Paris.


Dan Pashman: Chefs are writing their menus on chalkboards.


Dan Pashman: Waiters are setting tables.


Dan Pashman: The wine carafes are stacked.


Dan Pashman: The customers begin arriving.


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


Dan Pashman: Meanwhile…


Dan Pashman: In her office at the University of Strasbourg in Northeastern France, an English teacher named Kaitlin Plachy furtively pokes her head into the hallway — looks both ways. Seeing no one, she carefully clicks the door closed, returns to her desk, and in the glow of her computer screen, she pulls out a salad and records this voice memo.

CLIP (KAITLIN PLACHY): My name is Kaitlin. I have a workplace cultural challenge, which is currently, I’m 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 [LAUGHING]. There’s even a law in France that forbids workers from eating at their desk. And that is my workplace cultural challenge [LAUGHING]. Thanks so much.

Dan Pashman: Wait, what did she say?

Person #1: It’s forbidden.

Dan Pashman: There’s a law …


Dan Pashman: … Against eating lunch at your desk?

Katz Laszlo: Can you read this sentence for me?


Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. 

Dan Pashman: Today we have a story from our friends at Rough Translation. It’s an NPR podcast that tells stories from far off places that hit close to home. On this season of Rough Translation, they’re traveling the globe to see how people are shifting their relationship to their jobs. Which is why Kaitlin Plachy sent them that voice memo. Here’s Rough Translation host, Gregory Warner.

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

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

Gregory Warner: [LAUGHING]

Kaitlin Plachy: My lunch break is too long and too relaxing.


Gregory 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.

Kaitlin Plachy: Oh, yeah. I had an internship in an NGO and — so it was mandated that we take our lunch break. But 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?

Gregory Warner: Aw.

Kaitlin Plachy: You can’t come back to your desk.

Gregory Warner: And what would be actually the punishment for coming back to your desk?

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

Gregory Warner: [LAUGHING] It’s like the opposite of a conversation with a boss you might expect, right?

Kaitlin Plachy: Indeed [LAUGHS]. It was.

Gregory Warner: To lunch longer.

Kaitlin Plachy: Right.


Gregory Warner: And so we decided to find out the logic behind this strange law and maybe convince one American to leave work at work.

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

Gregory Warner: Okay. We have it on record [LAUGHS] Here we go. 


Gregory Warner: Kaitlin was quick to point out that she does not have a problem with long lunch breaks on occasion.

Kaitlin Plachy: I can appreciate spending time in a specific way and saying, Okay, 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.

Gregory Warner: Wouldn’t it be enough for the government to protect our time, to tell employers they have to give us a break for lunch instead of also mandating where the employees have to eat it?

Katz Laszlo: But are you surprised that this is written down in the law?

Person #4: No, I knew it.

Gregory Warner: So when our reporter Katz Laszlo interviewed lunch goers at two bistros, almost no one was surprised that the country would have such a law.


Gregory Warner: They said, this is just French tradition.


Gregory 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.

Gregory Warner: Good to meet you, Professor.

Martin Bruegel: Oh, you can say Martin.

Gregory Warner: Professor Martin Bruegel is a food culture historian at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. And when we get on the subject of working lunches, he tells me about a recent debate that broke out at his own workplace.

Martin Bruegel: On lunchtime seminars, whether they were useful …

Gregory Warner: When the lunchtime seminar, the American brown bag, was proposed at Martin’s institute, professors protested.

Martin Bruegel: Lunchtime seminars were considered as socially regressive, intellectually insufficient and so on because you needed a break in your work time.

Gregory Warner: And that brown-bag debate is still ongoing there, or was it resolved?

Martin Bruegel: The solution is that the seminars happened, but sandwiches are not eaten during the seminar, but in the end.


Martin Bruegel: So …

Gregory Warner: Lunch is lunch, and work is work. Keep the sandwiches aside from the seminars. This was exactly the kind of social code that had sent Kaitlin scurrying back to her office with her salad.

Kaitlin Plachy: Oh, yeah.

Gregory Warner: Like, when she does sometimes go out with her colleagues at lunch …

Kaitlin Plachy: I do go out with them, and I love spending time with them. I will often try to talk about work, and that’s when they’ll remind me of being like, oh, this is our off time. Let’s talk about that later. Because it really — they’ve grown up with this idea that you have to make a separation between lunch and work. And when you’re at lunch, you’re not at work.

Gregory Warner: But have they ever actually tried to say, listen, our way is better, and here’s why?

Kaitlin Plachy: I don’t think any of my colleagues have.

Gregory Warner: This question — why? — it’s the reason that I called Martin, the food culture historian.

Martin Bruegel: Jeepers. There is a law that regulates how we sit down to eat during the work day, so that got me started.

Gregory Warner: He got very interested in the origins of the French lunch law.


Gregory Warner: The story Martin tells begins in the wake of the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

Martin Bruegel: As the economy developed, the distance between someone’s residence and the workplace increased.

Gregory Warner: More and more workers were spending most of their day stuck inside workplaces.

Martin Bruegel: Now, workplaces in the 1890s, as you might imagine, were health hazards.


Gregory Warner: Thermometer makers got mercury poisoning. Matchbook makers got phossy jaw.

Martin Bruegel: There was dust. There were fumes.

Gregory Warner: And it wasn’t just the toxic chemicals in factories.

Martin Bruegel: Even department stores, they discovered that there were more microbes per cubic feet than outside. [LAUGHS]

Gregory Warner: People worried about workers’ life expectancy.


Gregory Warner: Lack of fresh air was seen as a culprit.

Martin Bruegel: The saying was that we have to flush the work sites as we flush toilets.

Gregory Warner: Mechanical ventilation wasn’t really a thing, so instead they decided to open the windows.

Martin Bruegel: We get the dirt out.


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


Gregory Warner: Lunchtime.


Gregory Warner: And so legislators passed a new decree.

Martin Bruegel: Article 8 [LAUGHS] said that work sites had to be ventilated during eating breaks.

Gregory Warner: Shut down the machines.

Martin Bruegel: And Article 9 said work sites had to be evacuated during eating breaks.

Gregory 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.

Martin Bruegel: So people would spill over into the street, which became a problem in itself.

Gregory Warner: Which led to other problems.

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


Martin Bruegel: The first women’s strike, actually, by the seamstresses was about the right to eat in their workplace.

Gregory Warner: A female labor inspector commented in her yearly report for 1901, the enforcement of this law, “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.”

Martin 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.


Gregory 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, like, a czar of hygiene or something?

Martin Bruegel: [LAUGHS] No.


Martin Bruegel: It had much to do with the political structure in France. You know, it’s very centralized. It also happens that there was a heavy deputation of doctors in the national assembly.

Gregory 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.

Martin 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.

Gregory Warner: But did the law, you feel, solidified that?

Martin 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.

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

Gregory Warner: Again, our listener Kaitlin.

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.

Gregory Warner: [LAUGHS] It hasn’t worked?

Kaitlin Plachy: No.

Gregory Warner: So what does he — what, if any, arguments has he made?

Kaitlin 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.

Gregory 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.


Gregory 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.

Martin 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.

Gregory 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?

Kaitlin Plachy: I came into this totally prepared to defend my American productivity. And I think my argument is crumbling.

Dan Pashman: Coming up, Rough Translation makes the case. Stick around.



+++ BREAK +++



Dan Pashman: Welcome back to, I’m Dan Pashman. In last week’s show I talk with Sohla and Ham El-Waylly, who are chefs and YouTube stars, and married to each other. Sohla and Ham first met in culinary school, where they bonded over their interest in some obscure ingredients…

CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): We were both really into the Alinea cookbook. And then we talked about the hydrocolloids.

CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Hydro-what?

CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): The foams? Hydrocolloids, xanthan gum, iota …

CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): Gellin. Gellin is the most romantic of all the hydrocolloids. 


CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): And like, Heston Blumenthal had this series on BBC called In Search of Perfection

CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): Oh, we loved that!

CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): We love that show.


CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): We would just like — we would just cuddle up in the dorms on a small laptop and then just watch these episodes over and over and over again. 

CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): So you’re nerds?


CLIP (HAM EL-WAYLLY): We’re basically nerds. We’re — we bonded … we bonded over being nerds.

Dan Pashman: We talk about our best restaurant dessert ideas and the way Sohla and Ham cook together at home. Then we take a call from a married couple fighting over pancake size. You got to check it out. It’s up now. 

Dan Pashman: Okay, back to Rough Translation.


CLIP (RACHEL MARTIN): The virus is hitting Europe with its full…

Gregory Warner: This is Rough Translation. I’m Gregory Warner.

CLIP (RACHEL MARTIN): Fighting back with various restrictive measures to  control COVID’s spread. NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley has more.

Gregory Warner: In February of 2021, deaths from COVID-19 in France were on the rise.

CLIP (ELEANOR BEARDSLEY): President Emmanuel Macron is said to be conflicted as he huddles with scientific advisers. He knows …

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


Gregory 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 …


Gregory Warner: …This was cause for celebration.


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

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

Gregory Warner: Martin feared that President Macron, heading into an election, might appease the conservatives by abolishing this law permanently. And Martin, as an historian, had seen how culture change can come in times of crisis. 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.

Gregory Warner: Hey, Kaitlin, you there?

Kaitlin Plachy: Yeah. Hi.

Gregory Warner: And so when I called Kaitlin back, I came armed with Martin’s research.

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

Gregory Warner: Okay. We have it on record. [LAUGHS] Here we go. 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.

Martin Bruegel: I mean, people are just simply happier to take a break, some downtime during the workday. It’s good for their well-being.

Gregory Warner: What do you say to those?

Kaitlin 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.


Gregory Warner: Okay. Productivity.

Kaitlin Plachy: I really like productivity.

Gregory Warner: Okay. 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.

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

Gregory 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.

Kaitlin Plachy: Okay. That I buy a little bit because our meetings are incredibly productive. We’ve shortened the max length of our meetings down to 40 minutes.


Gregory Warner: Case closed? Not so fast.

Kaitlin Plachy: It’s difficult as a teacher because I have classes in the afternoon. And when I get done with class, I just want to go home. 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.

Gregory Warner: Right. You want to get it all done before you leave. Okay …


Gregory 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 …


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

Person #5: Of course. Of course. It’s a moment of sharing, sharing thoughts, sharing …

Katz Laszlo: They said that it’s easier to work together if you understand the way that they think.

Person #5: … Know what they think, what they are, actually.

Katz Laszlo: And if you understand, why do they keep saying no to this thing I asked them to do, why do they work like that? Oh, there’s something going on in your life, maybe that’s why you’re stressed.

Person #6: You eat. You drink. And you can understand why.

Katz Laszlo: So you have less conflict.

Person #6: Yes.

Katz Laszlo: Like, you have more understanding.

Person #6: It’s only off the record.

Person #7: It makes our relationships stronger, and it’s easier for us after that to work together. Like …

Katz Laszlo: And a lot of people said that it made them care about their colleagues more, that it made conflict easier. Several people brought that up, actually.

Gregory Warner: Okay. 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.

Kaitlin Plachy: That I buy.

Gregory Warner: You do buy?

Kaitlin 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 so I knew how the progress was going …

Gregory Warner: Hm. 

Kaitlin Plachy: And it definitely helped create community in a way that’s not difficult.


Gregory 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 I 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.

Kaitlin 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. You don’t have to go out of your way to do it because that time is built into your day already.

Gregory Warner: Think about everything she does not have to do. She doesn’t have to schedule a lunch with her co-worker. She doesn’t have to think about whether they’ll be busy or whether she’ll be busy. She doesn’t have to make a resolution to take more rest time or hope her coworker has done the same. It’s all just built into the flow of the day.

Kaitlin Plachy: That’s very true. And I think I’ve been in France for too long because I started taking that for granted, that of course, we’re all going to stop and go out at the same time. 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.

Gregory Warner: Really?

Kaitlin Plachy: I think so.

Gregory Warner: That seems — that’s interesting. What do you mean? I mean, you want to be in a place that has a shared lunch, you just don’t always want to share it?

Kaitlin Plachy: I think that’s it.

Gregory Warner: Kaitlin had found a workaround — a way to have her lunch and eat it, too.

Kaitlin Plachy: Compromise [LAUGHING]

Gregory Warner: Even the coffee time that she occasionally joins lasts longer than many Americans’ entire lunch break. But the problem with Kaitlin’s compromise — and she knows this herself — is that if everyone took this on-demand approach to French lunching, there would be no collective lunch for her to duck in and out of.

Katz Laszlo: She’s freeloading from everybody else’s small talk [LAUGHING]

Gregory Warner: She’s freeloading. Right.

Gregory Warner: I was talking about this with Katz Laszlo, who we sent to the French bistro. None of my arguments, I told her, had seemed to change Kaitlin’s ways. And she brought up this other argument.

Katz Laszlo: And maybe another thing that she’s missing is interacting with people in different fields.


Katz Laszlo: Yeah. There’s, like, a famous actor here…

Person #8: Right now I just finished a period film.

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


Katz Laszlo: And they know each other, and they talk about their day, and they know what’s going on in each other’s lives. [SPEAKS FRENCH] 

Katz Laszlo: There was another two people, who I walked up to 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.


Katz Laszlo: And I think there’s also, like, a sense of community in that and a sense of opening your mind because you’re talking to people.


Katz Laszlo: And I think maybe that’s something you would miss if you didn’t go out.

Martin Bruegel: That is, to me, the ideal lunch where things happen.

Gregory 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, an unexpected rendezvous, that might — just might — spark your next big idea or change your life.

Gregory Warner: Is there any breakthrough or anything that’s happened for you that wouldn’t have happened without the shared lunch?

Martin Bruegel: Well, I might not have met my wife.


Gregory Warner: What is the story of how you met your wife, if you don’t mind telling?


Gregory Warner: This love story…

Martin Bruegel: How do you say marionette?

Gregory Warner: Starts with a student of puppets.

Martin Bruegel: She was working at the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions to look at traditional puppets.

Gregory Warner: She catches the eye of a food culture researcher.

Martin Bruegel: And I happened to go through there looking at popular food habits, and I saw her. I approached.

Gregory Warner: But Martin does not want to be so bold as to just ask her out on a date. Enter…

Martin Bruegel: [SPEAKS FRENCH] 

Gregory Warner: Shared lunch.


Martin Bruegel: We took lunch together.

Gregory Warner: The social cost is lowered. He doesn’t have to ask her out. He can just join her and her friends.

Martin Bruegel: And so that’s how we got to know each other.

Gregory Warner: You’re saying the custom of the shared lunch gave you the courage to ask her out on a date.

Martin Bruegel: And the possibility also. [LAUGHS]. See, there’s a lot going on in meals. From lunch, you can go to dinner and to the movies, and the rest is history. [LAUGHS]


Gregory 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 okay 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.

Kaitlin Plachy: If I were to conform to everything that French people want me to do, it wouldn’t feel like me.


Kaitlin Plachy: There’s enough things that are black and white in France that you have to do.

Gregory Warner: [LAUGHS]

Kaitlin Plachy: So I want some liberty on my lunch time.

Gregory Warner: Give me liberty or — yeah.

Kaitlin Plachy: Or give me … snacks? [LAUGHS]

Gregory Warner: Give me snacks. [LAUGHS]


Dan Pashman: That was an episode of the NPR podcast Rough Translation. It’s a great show where they follow familiar conversations into unfamiliar territory, like there was a recent episode about why a hyper-local newspaper in New York’s Hudson Valley hired a Ukraine war correspondent. There’s another one you should check out about a scooter thief in China who inspires a slacker revolution and attracts government surveillance in the process. They always find incredible and surprising stories on Rough Translation from NPR.


Dan Pashman: Next week on The Sporkful, I meet up with Scott Wiener, who runs Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. I dive deep into the mind of this man who is obsessed with pizza. He carries a thermometer with him that allows him to, from a distance, measure the temperature of the surface of the cheese on the pizza when it comes out of the oven and know the exact temperature at which you will burn the roof of your mouth. That’s how hardcore he is. He’ll also show me his Guinness World Record holding collection of pizza boxes. And we eat a few slices together, of course. While you’re waiting for that one, don’t forget to listen to last week’s show, when Sohla and Ham El-Waylly resolve a listener dispute about pancakes. That one’s up now.

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