What started out as a decree to help contain diseases is now a key cog of workplace culture in France.
Don't we all love to eat at our desks while trying to multitask at work? Well, you could be charged if you tried to eat at your desk in France as it's forbidden. The French labor code prohibits workers from eating lunch in the workplace. The lunch break, or "la pause déjeuner," is now sacrosanct in France. Originally, there wasn't a culture of leaving your workplace to eat lunch but it was a public health crisis that paved the way for the lunch break and another crisis that nearly ended it, reported NPR. "The workplace in the 1890s was full of health hazards," said food-culture historian Martin Bruegel. Workers were diagnosed with various diseases as they shared meals on the factory floor. The Industrial Revolution was underway and workplaces were a petri dish of diseases. "Even in department stores, there were more microbes and germs per cubic feet than outside," added Bruegel.
Diseases were rampant and it was a full-blown health crisis. Doctors decided the only way to sort out the health crisis was to clean the air in dirty workspaces and that could only be done if workers left their workplaces. That's when the plan to ban lunch at workplaces was instated. A decree was passed in 1894 banning lunch at workplaces, explains Bruegel in his essay "Covid-19, Workday Lunch, and the French Labor Code." As workers left the workplace, the windows of factories were opened to clear out the germs.
This created another unintended issue. People were now flooding public spaces during the lunch break, which led to rampant harassment of women in the streets. So much that women protested to get workers to have lunch at their workplaces. "The first women's strike was actually carried out by the seamstresses demanding the right to eat in their workplace," said Bruegel. The lawmakers said it was imperative for workers' safety and the decree remained. This eventually paved way for what is now a cultural marker of the French and a celebrated one at that. Work and lunch couldn't be more divorced than it is today in France. It's entirely normal for workplaces to be shut down during lunch while bistros and restaurants are crowded with patrons.
France's National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, recently proposed conducting brown-bag seminars—informal meetings that generally occur in the workplace around lunchtime. The institute was met with protests. "Lunchtime seminars were considered as socially regressive, intellectually insufficient, and so on because you needed a break in your work time!" said Bruegel. The law was briefly suspended to help fight the pandemic. The brief suspension of the law sparked debate on its necessity but many are for continuing the practice. Bruegel, for one, believes it's essential. "People are just simply happier when they take some downtime during the workday," he said. "It's good for their well-being." He argued that workers were more happy and productive and also added that it was good for society. "People who eat together are able to talk about issues, and they can work out tensions or different opinions. They create a culture in which having different points of view is possible," he said. The lunch law suspension and French workers are going back to their sacrosanct practice of sharing a meal outside of work.