Paris - A newspaper open on the bar of this Paris café tells of a row over France’s Sunday trading rules. But the bar owner, Zhang Chang, says he has little time to follow such debates. He’s too busy working.
While French workers worry that the country’s long economic downturn could mean the end of laws banning Sunday trading and enforcing a 35-hour week, Zhang and Chinese immigrants like him are quietly getting ahead the old-fashioned way – 11 hours a day, six days a week.
“As I see it, when you work, you’re paid. So why stop at 35 hours?” he asks, perplexed by France’s landmark law that shaved four hours off the statutory working week in the 1990s.
Zhang owns the Café Le Marais in central Paris and is part of a wave of entrepreneurial migrants from China’s Wenzhou region who are taking over France’s “bar tabac” business. They are navigating restrictive labour rules by focusing on the bar and restaurant sector, which is exempt from the 35-hour rule and the Sunday trading ban.
That approach, and their work ethos, runs counter to the work-life balance long treasured by many French and vigorously defended by their unions over the past century. But it chimes with others who say it may be time for a change.
In a recent Ifop poll 71 percent of French people said they would be willing to work on Sundays if their pay was boosted. And many white-collar French workers and business owners say that in reality they already work much longer than 35 hours a week. .
While the debate continues, the Chinese plough on.
“We the Chinese think all the unemployment is because people can’t work enough,” says Xiao, a restaurant owner who declines to give her last name as she dishes out Wenzhou specialities such as chewy stir-fried rice cake.
Even the dining habits of the French reveal a lack of get up and go, she adds. “I have people who linger for three hours after they’re done eating. It drives me crazy!”
The success of Zhang and Xiao is just another sign of China’s growing presence in France, alongside its ownership of famed vineyards, its billion-euro holdings in blue chip companies and the daily busloads of Chinese tourists spending in Paris shops.
Zhang arrived in 1996 without the papers that would have allowed him to work. He did off-the-books jobs until he received official clearance.
That is a classic pattern among Wenzhou immigrants, who have formed the economic engine of France’s Asian community, says Richard Beraha, the author of China in Paris.
“They don’t expect anything from the French state,” he says. “Unemployment in France is of little concern, because essentially they’re all entrepreneurs. It’s a state of mind.”
Wenzhou, a port 500km south of Shanghai, is known for a culture of enterprise, which the immigrants bring with them.
Beraha says family members furnish labour and capital. It takes seed money of just e50 000 (R670 000) to start a takeaway and staffing it with relatives keeps labour costs low.
Many are pouring their energies into bar tabacs – a focal point of French life where locals can drink, buy cigarettes and bet on horses. The sector is being abandoned by many French owners on the grounds that it is too labour intensive for too little profit.
About 60 percent of the businesses for sale in Paris are being bought by Asian buyers, most of them Chinese, says Gerard Bohelay, the head of the Paris federation of bar tabac owners.
“I’m the only one left,” sighs Patrick Loubiere, whose parents set up Le Celtic bar tabac, which he now runs.
“The younger generation doesn’t want to do it,” adds Loubiere. “It’s too early in the morning for some, too late at night for others. They’re getting lazy.” – Reuters