Pollution in Paris and the French Working Hours

Apparently there have been record levels of pollution in Paris over the past three days, something I completely failed to notice.  The government has responded by issuing a ban on Monday for any vehicle with an even-numbered license plate, in the hope it will reduce traffic.  On Tuesday those with odd-numbered plates will get to leave their cars at home whilst the evens drive to work.

This is monumentally stupid for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t announce on a Friday that half the city’s cars will be banned on the following Monday.  People do need time to make alternative arrangements, even in France.  Secondly, as the comments below the linked article point out, this has been tried before in various cities, with the effect that people buy a second, beat-up old car to drive on the alternate days.  If these restrictions stay in place it will merely add to overall numbers of cars in the city, where finding a unicorn is easier than a parking spot.

Pollution in Paris has been a problem for years, which is why this latest move smacks of a desperate gesture in the run-up to mayoral elections.  The public transport system is very good (yes, people complain about the RER and Metro systems, and they are dirty, and there are strikes, but their design is first-rate and although they are uncomfortable, they do the job), but overloaded twice a day.  There is also no congestion charge in Paris, for reasons I don’t know (there are speed cameras though, one of them got me yesterday in what was my first proper drive since I got here).

One of the problems is that flexi-time seems to be an alien concept in Paris.  Even back in 2000 in my first job in the UK I was told that I needed to do 8 hours per day, starting and finishing when I liked, but I had to be present for “core hours” between 10am and 4pm.  God knows when lunchtime was.  All essential business was conducted in this 6-hour time slot.  But this was highlighted as one of the major differences between Anglo-Saxon and French working cultures in my cultural awareness training session.  In theory, you can start and finish when you want in France, but in practice everyone arrives at about 9am-9:30am (some at 8:30am, but very few before that) and stays until at least 6pm with many sticking around until 7:30pm and beyond.  The overall working day gets stretched by everyone having a leisurely lunch lasting an hour or more, firstly because this is just the French way of doing things, and secondly because there is a law in France that every company over a certain size must provide either a subsidised canteen or luncheon vouchers (our canteen is spectacular, as one would expect: you choose the steak, a chef takes it out of the fridge and cooks it in front of you).  By contrast, Brits generally prefer to ram a stale sandwich down their faces whilst checking the football news online between noon and five past, before getting back to work with the aim of leaving the office as soon as possible and getting themselves down the pub.  If you try to do this in a French office you’ll find some joker has organised a meeting for 6pm, sometimes on a Friday afternoon (yes, really).  Yet if you tried to organise one for 8:30am or 1pm you’d be sitting there on your own.  This does annoy me a bit.  When I was in Nigeria somebody once told me I had to make a presentation to a load of managers at 7:30pm or something, and I refused on the grounds that if they cannot conduct their business affairs in office hours then they are not fit to be managers.  I didn’t put it quite like that, but I didn’t sugar-coat it either.  Small wonder I’m not missed there, but I digress.

Anyway, I have no idea if more flexible working hours would ease the burden on the public transport systems in Paris and encourage more people to use them.  And I don’t really have a dog in this fight, as I quite deliberately chose to live close to the office so I wouldn’t get tangled up in this sort of thing.  But it served as a handy excuse to write about the French office hours.


20 thoughts on “Pollution in Paris and the French Working Hours

  1. I love it when the do those odd and even number things. I must admit I never noticed the pollution when I was there a couple of December’s ago, it could be a temperature inversion that is capturing it or to many scooters and two stroke engines!

    I took the Metro with my oldest son, his first ever on an underground and it rocked, I had been on the Metro many years before. Good signage for non French speakers and well laid out. I was blown away by how many levels of tunnels there were and Its hard to impress me in this regard. The particular line we took was at least three grades below the highest tunnel, definitely the deepest public transit underground tunnel I have done.

    I ma not quite sure how the Mayor benefits with this snap decision?

  2. The pollution appears to be very weather dependent, and is particularly bad in hot weather.

    On the depth of tunnels…a lot of the French metro is done by cut-and-cover, and as such isn’t very deep. I think the deepest one is Abbesses at 36m, whereas the deepest in London is about 60m, and 40m in Central London. If you want to see deep metro stations, go to Moscow or St. Petersburg: they go down almost 90m, with 60m escalators which take seemingly forever to ride. In fact, you’ve not really seen a metro system until you’ve seen the Moscow one, it is as impressive as anything you’d find in the former Soviet Union.

  3. Maybe the slow escalators gave me that impression of depth as it felt deeper than the tube!

    I will definitely do the Moscow and St Petersburg lines some day.

    So whats in it for the mayor of Paris with this vehicle ban?

  4. So whats in it for the mayor of Paris with this vehicle ban?

    “I’m a politician, something must be done!!!”

  5. Not been to Moscow but Prague also has very deep lines. The escalators go at Usain Bolt km/h and still take forever.

  6. The depth of the Kiev metro is astonishing, too. The centre of that city is on a high hill overlooking a mighty river. The metro lines go under the river, and so the distance between the track level (below the level of the bottom of the river) and the section of the city on top of the hill is considerable. The deepest stations are over 100 metres below the ground. It is vitally important to get the correct escalator to the correct exit for your ultimate destination. Getting the wrong one from the same station can mean a considerable walk when you get to the surface.

  7. I never spent any time in Kiev, basically jumping in a taxi as soon as I arrived by train and realised there were no spaces on the trains to Crimea for several days (this was in July). Having thought I’d check out the flying options and asking to go to the airport, the taxi driver suggested we go all the way to Simferepol, which turned out to be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done (but a good story). In hindsight, given recent events, I’m quite glad I chose to spend the time in Crimea: chances are we’ll need visas and other Russian bullshit to go there in future, whereas hopefully Kiev will return to normal once the barricades are finally removed.

  8. Oddly enough, I was just reading a piece about the challenges London’s rail and tube operators face with respect to offering off-peak services. Once upon a time rush hours went for a couple of hours in each of the morning and evening, services ran at high frequencies during this period and at much reduced frequencies outside these periods. These days the commuting period is much broader in both the morning and the evening, and demand during the day has otherwise increased. (Some of this is a consequence of tube services being extremely congested. Work hours have become more flexible as a consequence, and then the non-peak tube services become have become congested too). It’s not always possible to keep up a continuous peak frequency service on a system not designed for it – heat builds up during the day and stuff like that.


  9. Kiev is a stunning city, and I would strongly recommend a visit. I was last there in January 2013. I walked around Independence Square etc. It was snow covered and bitterly cold. It was rather poignant to see the protesters in this very familiar place exactly a year later. It looked just as cold, and it was clear that they were a determined bunch. I would suspect that barricades are pretty much gone now, and my guess is that any western tourists who show up will be greeted warmly.

    I nearly went to Crimea last year, but at the last moment the airfare didn’t work out. I had it in the back of my mind to go there this year. I guess it will not be happening for a while now.

  10. “you’ll find some joker has organised a meeting for 6pm, sometimes on a Friday afternoon”: my wife used to work in an academic department where staff meetings took place on Friday at 6pm. The Head of Department said that it helped keep ’em short. The timing of arrivals and departures was minuted too. There’s something so refreshing about the old, Presbyterian ways.

  11. I did my PhD in an academic department which held its most important weekly seminar at 4.30pm every Friday. This had been deliberately established by the founding Head of Department some decades earlier precisely because he was a believer in old Presbyterian ways and didn’t want people going home early on Fridays. If the speaker was a graduate student or someone relatively junior, the chairman could wind things up by telling them to shut up at 5.30pm and we could all go to the pub. If it was some distinguished senior professor from somewhere, though, we might be there until 6pm, 6.30pm, or whatever. At such moments you could look at the eyes of the members of the audience, and see “For God’s sake, now stop” in their eyes.

  12. “…..staff meetings took place on Friday at 6pm. The Head of Department said that it helped keep ‘em short.”
    Her Majesty, for this same reason, has long decreed that “in the interests of brevity” all meetings are to be conducted standing.

  13. I’m all for short meetings, but the other thing they taught me in my French cultural awareness training is that French meetings are not like Anglo-Saxon meetings. There are many words to describe French meetings, many of which you would not say in front of your mother, but one adjective that can never be applied is “brief”.

  14. “I’m a politician, something must be done!!!”

    Fair enough, I aint there but I get the feeling from your post that there is a greater risk of him marginalising half of the electorate?

    Also have you came across more than usual levels of cowardice with French senior management, backing down, shape changing, backstabbing, duplicity, ganging up on who is not in the room type of thing, over and above what you would expect as standard behaviour for an oil and gas executive?

  15. Fair enough, I aint there but I get the feeling from your post that there is a greater risk of him marginalising half of the electorate?

    To be honest, I have no idea how the French think collectively as an electorate, and I don’t think anyone does!

    Also have you came across more than usual levels of cowardice with French senior management, backing down, shape changing, backstabbing, duplicity, ganging up on who is not in the room type of thing, over and above what you would expect as standard behaviour for an oil and gas executive?

    Let’s pretend you asked me if I thought Mitchell Johnson was on form during the Ashes. The answer would be the same.

  16. Just to be sure, can you cough if you don’t think that “one of them” would get 160 not out against the worlds best attack, with a fractured shoulder.

  17. A French friend of ours once said that she loved British meetings. Because there’s an agenda, people turn up pretty much on time, they josh and joke a bit, dispatch the agenda, make some decisions, and people then go off to execute them. Moreover, if the good humour fails any poison is usually delivered with enough subtlety to amuse her no end.

  18. It is good to see that Tim is in fact an equal opportunity host-disser.

  19. I wont forget a certain very senior JV French staff member that I recently worked with and was a neighbour of his in the office scene. He was notorious for dozing off between bursts of activity comprising the giving of his expense receipts to his PA, because he didn’t do anything else, it made no difference and we technically weren’t paying for him either.

    This same gentleman insisted in turning up to an offshore HAZOP even though it wasn’t in his patch, since he was director he got his way. So all the offshore guys had this installation planned out to the max and were pretty much ready to punch through the HAZOP and were flattered that a French director was taking such an interest in their activities that he would attend.

    The director sat down the front, he hadn’t met the offshore team or introduced himself beforehand, the obviously knew who he was. The HAZOP kicked off, he then immediately and rudely interrupted the facilitator asking stupid non-agenda questions, slowed the process down to a virtual stop and then fell fast asleep in the front row. We didn’t wake him up until smoko, which he indulged in and then he upped and left the building and the HAZOP, no goodbyes and no signing out.

  20. Thoughts of visiting Moscow or St. Petersburg have crossed my minds at various points, and then I have looked at the bureaucratic requirements, and elected to run very quickly in the opposite direction. I guess they simply haven’t been updated from the old USSR days.

    I’d love to know what type of academic department dearieme was working in. My experience was largely one where the bosses made known their disapproval of people who occasionally weren’t in the lab at 18:30 on Sunday.

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