Yesterday’s New York Times has a high-production-values piece on differences in the recent labor-market performance of France and Germany. Reporter Steven Erlanger, whose foreign reporting I’ve admired in other contexts, builds the story around a comparison of two small towns –Sélestat and Emmendingen– located on either side of the French-German border. Unfortunately, the side-by-side comparison is not well-situated in the available national data, and the story falls quickly into a “lazy Latins” versus “industrious Prussians” frame that gives a misleading picture of the economic problems facing France today.

Let’s take a closer look at one particularly problematic sentence that captures the core themes of the piece:

But while the French may admire German rigor, they are reluctant to make some of the same sacrifices, including longer hours and less job security.

So, the Germans are rigorous, make sacrifices, work long hours, and accept less job security; the French are reluctant, work less, and cling to their job security.

This may be the way folks on the ground tell the story, but we actually have a lot of reliable internationally comparable data that suggest this view is almost entirely wrong.

First, as my colleague, Dean Baker noted yesterday, the average French worker puts in more hours per year than the average German worker. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2009 (the most recent data available), the average French worker spent 1,554 hours on the job, compared to only 1,390 in Germany. (The corresponding US number was 1,768.) Longer French hours have been the case for years, and are not simply a function of the Great Recession. Even in the context of this particular story, longer French hours shouldn’t be surprising: early on, the piece notes President Sarkozy’s desire for France “to allow more part-time work, like the Germans.”

Second, the average German worker actually has more job security than the average French worker. On a summary scale of the strength of “employment protection legislation” developed by the OECD, which runs from 0 (no legal job protections) to 6 (something approaching what a US Supreme Court Justice has), France scores a 2.5. Germany, meanwhile is at 3.0, with close to the strictest employment protection among all OECD countries. (The United States rates a 0.2 on the same scale. See Figure 6 in this report for details.)

Third, despite the impression left by this quote and the rest of the piece, French workers are, on average, more productive than their German counterparts. According to the most recent data (pdf) from the Conference Board, which compiles internationally comparable data on national productivity, in 2011, the average French worker produced $59.70 of goods and services in an hour of work, almost 8 percent more than the average German worker, at $55.50. (The average output per hour for US workers in the same year was $62.10.)

Street-level views of the economy can be extremely useful, but they have to  be anchored securely in the available, broader data. France has its share of economic problems, but yesterday’s New York Times article did a poor –even misleading– job describing them.

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