For members


Reader Question: When does the working day start and end for French employees?

France has strict employment rules - but does that extend to when you can clock on and off? And is it really true that French workers spend most of their time either on holiday or on their lunch break?

Reader Question: When does the working day start and end for French employees?
Commuters wait for the train in the Gare de l'Est metro station in Paris, on March 7, 2023, as fresh strikes and protests are planned against the government's controversial pensions reform. - Unions have vowed to bring the country to a standstill over the proposed changes, which include raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and increasing the number of years workers have to make contributions for a full pension. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Much is made of France being a workers’ utopia, with strong unions, short working weeks, a low retirement age, and plenty of holidays.

The truth, as it always is, is not entirely per the brochure. Yes, the unions are strong. And, yes, the retirement age is – currently – lower than many other countries – the government’s efforts to raise it to 64 is the reason for the current wave of strikes and protests.

But other tales, such as the one about managers not being allowed to email their staff out of hours, should be taken with a pinch of salt. (Looking at this one specifically – that the rule actually says that there’s nothing to stop bosses emailing their team at any time of day – but they cannot discriminate against staff who don’t respond to an email sent outside their usual working hours).

READ ALSO France gives workers ‘right to disconnect’ from work email

So what do working hours rules really say?

35-hour week – Let’s start with the 35-hour week. Officially, the legal working week is set at 35 hours. This is not the maximum amount of time a person can work, but is the reference number for calculating overtime, or part-time job hours.

People who benefit from the 35-hour week might work longer (the typical working week for office employees is 40 hours) but they are entitled to time back in lieu – known as RTT days – for every hour they work over that 35-hour mark.

However, it’s important to note that there are quite a lot of exceptions to the rule – certain professions are not covered by it (journalists for example – yes, obviously we checked that) and anyone who is at middle-manager level or above is also not covered. 

Here’s a more detailed look at how the 35-hour week really works

Working hours – For the actual hours that people work, obviously, a lot depends on the type of work people do – bar and restaurant staff and shop workers have different hours to those in an office environment, for example.

Police, hospital staff, and emergency services and factory workers are often on shift work, just as they are in every country and most cities will have a Noctilien (night bus) service which is designed with the needs of shift workers in mind.

But, for office workers, the standard working week is Monday to Friday, with starting times, depending on where you’re located usually running between 8.30am and 9.30am; and the working day ends at between 5.30pm and 6.30pm.

It is not uncommon, however, to see some office workers – more usually managers, who have flexibility on their working time – leaving the office as late as 8pm. 

Importantly, employees are obliged to take a lunch break – al desko dining is not permitted in French offices. These are usually between 45 minutes and an hour long – to allow time for a two-course meal at a nearby restaurant, if necessary.

There are some shops and offices, especially government offices, that close completely between 12 noon and 2pm, to allow workers to go for lunch. If that is the case, they will usually stay open until 6pm. Shops typically stay open until 7pm as do other businesses such as hairdressers.

Holidays – workers are of course also entitled to annual leave (plus they may get time off for personal reasons such as maternity and paternity leave, bereavement, getting married and sick days).

The standard holiday allowance in France is 25 days a year, generous but in line with European averages. If you’ve ever wondered how people manage to take the whole of the month of August off, plus time at Christmas it’s usually because they benefit from those RTT days (time off in lieu for 35-hour working week) and have saved up their extra hours to add onto their summer holiday.

There are also public holidays – 11 per year or 13 if you live in Alsace-Lorraine – and while not everyone gets the day off (shops tend to open on most public holidays, especially in big cities) employees would normally get extra pay or time off in lieu for working on a public holiday.

READ ALSO These are the days off that workers are entitled to in France

Strikes – another reason a French employee might not be at work is if they are on strike. While it’s true that the French do strike quite a lot, they also forego their salary for days when they’re on strike, so having a ‘day off’ for a strike is not quite as good as it sounds.

Self-employed – The above rules apply to salaried employees, while those who are self-employed are of course free to work as long as they like (within certain safety and sector-specific limits).

There were around 3.3 million people in 2021 who were self-employed and this often includes those work in a family business such as a local bouangerie or café.

There are some rules that cover certain sectors, however – for example boulangeries are legally obliged to close at least one day a week, a rule intended to give their hard-working staff (working those baguette ovens is a hot and sweaty task) a break. If you’re in a city, you’ll likely find that boulangeries within a certain area operate an informal rota system so that there is always at least one open on each day.

Lies, damned lies and statistics – Finally, a note about international comparisons – a lot of these are based on a fairly blunt formula of taking the total population of a country – including children, pensioners and the unemployed – and dividing it by the total number of hours worked in that country.

This means that countries like France which have a low retirement age and a long life expectancy (and therefore a lot of pensioners) come out poorly in terms of hours worked. France also has an unemployment rate higher than the European average, which skews their figures.

Perhaps a more useful figure to look at is the productivity of those who do work, and in those comparisons France tends to come out well, having among the most productive workers in Europe.

It may be that it’s not a coincidence that workers who have regular holidays and a proper break for lunch are highly productive when they’re at work?

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


9 of the best things about summer in France

If you're here on holiday then you can be pretty sure of a good time - but even for people forced to earn a living, the summer has a lot to look forward to. Here are some of our favourite things about a French summer.

9 of the best things about summer in France

There are some things about a French summer that make it extra special. Here are some of our favourites;

Posh picnics

The summer dining option is of course a picnic – but French ones tend to be a little better than a few soggy sandwiches and crisps. Think salads, cheese, charcuterie, fish and of course baguette – rounded off with seasonal fruit and an impressive dessert from the local pâtisserie. Wine to drink is de rigeur.

In the cities you’ll see people flocking the parks to enjoy a good picnic over the summer – and if you’re in Paris you can join the lively and buzzy crowds which can be found on the quais of the Seine on summer evenings.

If you like your picnics really posh, many chateaux host outdoor dining events with firework and/or music over the summer, while Paris has the annual diner en blanc.


Speaking of fruit, you will be spoiled for choice for seasonal fruits in the summer months. French markets always veer towards seasonality and this trend is particularly apparent in the summer.

Markets will be selling fresh, locally-grown cherries, apricots, peaches, melons, grapes, strawberries and raspberries according to the season.

If your friends aren’t available for a picnic, grab a bag of fresh fruit and head to the park with a good book.

Second homes

Speaking of friends, it’s likely that your French friends may have a second home – 20 percent of French people own a second home and as many of these are family properties even people who don’t actually own a property may have access to a family place either in the mountains or by the sea.

MAP Where in France has the most second homes?

Play your cards right and your friends may take you along for a cut-price holiday in a different part of France.

Your friends might also have a pool – one in 20 French people own a private pool, the highest rate of pool ownership in the world. It’s worth cultivating some friends who might invite you round for a dip (and poolside drinks of course) once the weather gets hot.

Summer drinks

This brings us on nicely to summer drinks – and France’s tendency towards seasonality also extends to drink.

In wine terms this means rosé – suddenly the shelves of your local supermarket and cave will be filled with lots of delicious rosés, from dry and full-bodied to sweet and light.

If you’re drinking en terrasse you’ll see spritzes galore – from the classic Aperol to a Saint-Germain or Lillet, what these have in common is that they are cool, refreshing and not overly strong. 

Spritz, rosé and pressé: 5 things to drink in France this summer


Summer is festival season in France when even the smallest towns have at least one event. From communal dinners in small towns to huge music festivals like Rock en Seine, there is something for everyone in France’s summer festival calendar.

27 festivals and events to enjoy in France this summer

Two of the biggest nationwide events are the Fête de la musique on June 21st when towns and cities around France host an evening of music events and the Fête nationale on July 14th – aka Bastille Day.

July 14th is a public holiday and the evening sees firework displays and parties across the country, with the famed Bals de pompiers (firemen’s balls) providing an eye-catching diversion.


If you fancy something a little more relaxed, many of France’s beautiful chateaux host special events in the summer, the better to show off their stunning gardens.

These can include fancy picnics, outdoor dinners, firework and music events and even the odd costume ball.

They of course remain open to visitors to simply drink in the historic atmosphere – both indoor and outdoor.

Lake beaches

Summer is peak time to go to the beach – but you don’t necessarily need to be near the sea to do this.

Because France is pretty big, a large proportion of the population live a long way from the sea – local officials have therefore created ‘beaches’ at lakes and reservoirs around the country.

Some are a simple sandy stretch alongside a swimming area of a lake or reservoir, others have a much more lively vibe with sun umbrellas, bars, cafés, seaside entertainments like crazy golf and live music in the evenings.

A perfect way to relax without spending hours travelling or fighting for a parking spot once you get to the coast.

Slacking off in August 

August is definitely the holiday month in France and it seems like well over half the country is at the beach. Many areas virtually close down in August as independent shops close up for three to four weeks and give their staff a well-earned break. Meanwhile any email is likely to return an ‘out of office’ reply.

8 signs that August has arrived in France

Even if you’re one of the few people still working, it’s often a fairly quiet time (with the obvious exception of certain industries like tourism). If your boss is away for the month of August you may find your lunch hours getting a little longer, your start times getting slightly later and your afternoon ‘research’ trips to the park becoming more extended.

Train trips

The French are a nation of staycationers – and when you look at the extraordinary beauty and diversity of France you will understand why.

This means that things are well set up for a break in another part of France, especially on the railways which see their busiest season in the summer.

SNCF runs summer sales and cheap tickets are available to certain groups including students and low-income families (via the government-subsidised holiday scheme). This year night-trains are also available to 8 French cities, for those who love a bit of Hercule Poirot vibe.

8 French night trains to take this summer