The Meaning of ‘Travail’


First use: mid-13th century

Origin: “labor, toil”, from Old French travail suffering or painful effort, trouble” (12th century)


C13: from Old French travaillier, from Vulgar Latin tripaliāre (unattested) to torture, from Late Latin trepālium – instrument of torture


The etymology of the French word for ‘work’ reveals that it once actually signified an ‘instrument of torture’.

It is therefore maybe not surprising that the French want to do as little ‘travail’ as possible and actually enjoy a 35 hour work week. Unfortunately this poses a bit of a problem for the French economy.

Sacred Cows – Untouchable, Untrimmable …

The AP recently reported on how difficult it actually is for the current French government to change the complex French ‘code du travail’ and to even contemplate reforming some of the sacred cows of the French welfare state:


„The 35-hour work week? Untouchable. The social safety net? Untrimmable.

So how on earth can France’s Socialist government keep its promise to make this country, and Europe, more competitive in the global marketplace? Slowly and carefully, President Francois Hollande says. After meetings with world finance chiefs Monday, he acknowledged “there are measures to take” on reducing the cost of labor in France, among the world’s highest — but said they “should be spread out over time.”

Many economists say France could be running out of time, however, and that could have repercussions beyond its borders.“

Geographically and economically between Germany and Spain, France has allied with its northern neighbor to manage the eurozone crisis, but its huge state debts and chronic unemployment are making it look increasingly like struggling Spain.


(emphasis added)

The latter point is indeed the biggest problem at the moment – as a major part of the euro area’s ‘core’, France simply must adapt.

The AP report further:


“The WTO promotes free trade and has criticized government intervention in big French companies, saying France should stop protecting its industry.

But after Hollande was elected in May, the Socialists’ first response to France’s lagging economy was to create an agency essentially dedicated to meddling: the Ministry of Industrial Recovery. That failed to keep unemployment from rising, or some of France’s biggest corporations from announcing thousands more layoffs — including carmaker Peugeot Citroen, Air France and retail giant Carrefour.

Hollande then asked one of the country’s most respected businessmen, former Airbus chairman Louis Gallois, to spend months drawing up plans to make France more competitive. But as reports leaked over the past week about the report’s recommendations — rethinking the controversial 35-hour week, shifting some of the tax burden to workers, cutting public spending — the government swiftly distanced itself.

“I’d advise against the idea of a shock, which has more of an attention-getting effect than a real therapeutic effect,” Hollande said Thursday. Without offering details, he said he would prefer a “pact” among the government, workers and employers.“


(emphasis added)

We believe we know quite well why Hollande is so reluctant to tackle any of these ‘sacred cows’ as forcefully as seems necessary. For one thing, he is, as Gaspard Koenig put it so trenchantly, „the ultimate – and probably also terminal – embodiment of the European-style Welfare State“.

Another of Koenig’s observations is well worth pointing out. If one were to compare Hollande to other socialists of the past, then he is by no means similar to centrist technocrats like Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder. Rather, so Koenig, the best comparison would be to Konstantin Tchernenko, the aging Soviet politbureau member who was the last of the ‘old guard’ communists to hold the reins of power in Moscow. Hollande is deeply committed to the socialist ideology, something that has become abundantly clear ever since he has been elected. He seems to be the prototypical apparatchik.

There is however another important reason for him to tread carefully. Hollande knows full well that the French are very willing to fight for what they regard as their well-deserved rights. The French left is especially combative, and Hollande has strong competition from the far left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ‘Parti de Gauche’, which has been founded by dissidents of the main socialist party. Would Hollande want to risk a confrontation with unionists and the far left protesting in the streets and paralyzing the country with strikes? Probably not, especially with voters already becoming increasingly disenchanted with his rule.

So even if he were not as committed to socialism as he evidently is and were to fully realize that he simply must institute radical reform, he is so to speak boxed in politically.

France may yet turn out to be the decisive weak link of the euro project.

As Gerard Dussillol of the pro-market Thomas More Institute points out:


“We’ve been in this kind of infernal machine for a long time… certain economic systems are stable for years and then suddenly it falls apart.”




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6 Responses to “France’s Sacred Labor Code”

  • GaryP:

    The essential point is that the arguments in Europe (and the US) about how to “fix” the economy always seem to be about issues that aren’t the really important (or the most important) issues.

    The basic issue, in the coming worldwide economic collapse, is hard money or fiat. From the decision to print “wealth” as a substitute for creating wealth, has flowed a system of enormous debt that cannot be paid back, enormous government that cannot be paid for, and enormous entitlements that cannot be continued.

    Not only will France collapse from the follies of big government, which promises what the electorate thinks should be, not what reality shows us can be, so will the entire world economy collapse from the same follies repeated in all major countries.

    Governments as powerful as currently exist in all the developed nations can only flourish when rulers can create money out of air or when the rulers control every aspect of the economy. In the first case, the people are given whatever they want using pretend money until the economy implodes or, in the second case, the people gets nothing because the economy cannot function under central planning.

    The result, after the collapse, will be an economy so primitive that nothing else but hard currency can exist and the long climb back up from grinding poverty will begin again.

    As sure as the grass is green, in some distant time, some innovative government will come up with the novel idea that fiat money will allow the economy to “grow faster” and the boom and bust cycle will repeat itself.

    As Heinlein said, “This will called ‘bad luck!'”

    • I completely agree, the real issues continue to be skirted. They are simply held to be taboo, although I should perhaps mention that it least BuBa president Weidman has come out publicly and noted that the power of central banks to create money from thin air is a questionable facet of the current dispensation. Of course, as a central banker, he failed to mention the essential conclusions.

  • Namor:

    To really understand France, one must understand that the communist party still exist here, and the communist ideology is wide spread across the political board : here there is no libertarian counter part, just different blend of socialist/communist.

    The only way things will start changing in France will be through major pain and after a major disturbing event.

    Do not get fooled by French politicians : no one there believes in a real free market economy, it is all sick nanystaters .

    The actual French social model is very messed up and only sticks together thanks to subsidies : when the other’s people money will run short watch for some amazing social unrest. Greece protesters will appear to be quiet people in regard to what’s coming here.

    • Thanks for providing some additional color,and FWIW, I completely agree with you. Even the so-called ‘conservatives’ in France have an instinctive distrust of the free market. That this is happening in the land that has brought forth such great economists as Turgot, Say and Bastiat is quite sad actually.
      I also fear that when welfare statism finally fails in France, as it must, there will be major unrest. One thing the French people are well known for is that they are perfectly willing to throng the streets in protest when someone tries to introduce unpopular reforms. In a way that’s a likable trait actually, it is only disturbing that it is driven by the wrong ideology.

      • White eagle:

        Unfortunately I must disagree here.According to what I know about psychology of French masses and politicians in present times they are virtually all on the same page,so don’t expect much riots in France (excluding suburbs of larger cities for well known reasons…).So when wheels start falling away seriously, expect they try even harder in their socialist/fascist efforts and masses will follow because that is in their hearts and minds.France will turn into Gulag gradually.It was very telling when present socialist clown took power,he specifically mentioned how great confidence he has in French bureaucratic machine.They will drive Statism to the maximum and they deserve it good and hard.And the funniest thing in this catastrophe is that all along they will continue to babble about Liberty and Dignity,while destroying them.Nation of babblers full of envy.Envy,laziness and searching for sure thing.

  • SavvyGuy:

    “We’ve been in this kind of infernal machine for a long time….certain economic systems are stable for years and then suddenly it falls apart.”

    Well said! Debt-based economic systems appear totally stable, right until they approach their Minsky moment. Stars shine brightly for billions of years, right until they exhaust their fissionable fuel and go supernova. Economics is the dismal study of continuity, whereas good traders pine for discontinuities. As Pater has succintly pointed out in prior missives, burning the household furniture to keep warm works for a while…right until you run out of furniture.

    The big question of the moment is whether we are now approaching some kind of worldwide economic discontinuity, or whether yet another rabbit will be pulled out of the hat again. How will we know? I’m watching JPY.

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