Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

People sit on the cafe terrace of La Gargouille on Saint-Jean square in Lyon, France in 2016.

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Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

People sit on the cafe terrace of La Gargouille on Saint-Jean square in Lyon, France in 2016.

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This story is adapted from the last episode of Rough translation† Listen more Apple PodcastsSpotify or NPR One

Eating a salad at your desk may not be the most memorable kind of lunch, but at least you can get some work done. This is prohibited in France.

French labor law prohibits employees from having lunch in the workplace. The solo work lunch is also shunned in a culture that values ​​a change of pace — and scenery — at lunchtime.

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But the French lunch break wasn’t always about bistros, leisurely meals and 90 minutes of conversation. Many employees initially rejected the idea of ​​leaving the workplace altogether.

So what did it take for the French to finally take a break?

It turns out the French lunch break was born during a public health crisis and nearly got killed in another.

germ theory

That is the argument of food culture historian Martin Bruegel.

“The workplace in the 1890s was fraught with health risks,” he says.

As cities grew and more workers had to travel to factories on the other side of the city, their eating habits changed. The midday meal, traditionally made for eating at home, entered a new takeaway phase. Lunch buckets became more and more common in the workplace. Fries bought at local markets were an occasional treat. Most of the actual eating took place on the factory floor.

Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

Workers stand at the exit of the Rattier factory in Bezons, France, circa 1905. Lunch buckets became more and more common in the workplace in France at the time.

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Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

Workers stand at the exit of the Rattier factory in Bezons, France, circa 1905. Lunch buckets became more and more common in the workplace in France at the time.

ND/Roger Violet via Getty Images

Imagine workers picking at their food with their fingers in match factories, sewing shops and warehouses full of heavy machinery. From airborne tuberculosis to phosphorus fumes, these workplaces were far from hygienic. “Even in department stores, there were more microbes and germs per cubic foot than outside.”

In his recent essay, “Covid-19, Workday Lunch and the French Labor Code,” Bruegel explored the link between the industrial revolution and the great French lunch break.

As diseases spread, doctors discussed how to clean the air in dirty workspaces.

First you had to get the people out. “The saying goes that we should flush the workplaces like we flush toilets,” says Bruegel. “What’s the best time to do that? Usually it’s when people eat!”

The government’s answer: ban lunch in the workplace. Get the people outside and then open the windows to get rid of the germs. That was the idea behind the 1894 decree banning lunch in the workplace.

Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

People gather outside Brasserie Légeron-Vetzel in Paris around 1900.

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Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

People gather outside Brasserie Légeron-Vetzel in Paris around 1900.

ND/Roger Violet via Getty Images

There was, however, another law: the law of unforeseen consequences. Bruegel points out that people would overflow in busy streets and strewn parks.

“There was intimidation of women on the streets. The first women’s strike was actually carried out by the seamstresses who demanded the right to food in their workplace,” says Bruegel. Eating outside was inappropriate, they said. A female labor inspector noted in her 1901 report that women viewed law enforcement as “tyrannical.”

Lawmakers urged the law to stay. Employee safety was at stake. And gradually, over decades, what a public health decree demanded — lunch outside the workplace — became a cherished part of French culture. Today it is a common sight to see workplaces closing their doors and bistros and restaurants swell with lunch diners. The separation between work and lunch is almost sacred.

Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

Young women have lunch in the Tuileries Garden in Paris in January 1929.

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Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

Young women have lunch in the Tuileries Garden in Paris in January 1929.

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Consider a recent protest at Bruegel’s Institute, France’s national research institute for agriculture, food and the environment, over the proposed introduction of American-style seminars. “Lunch seminars were considered socially regressive, intellectually deficient and so on,” he says, “because you needed a break from your work time!”

The Remains of the Break

Ninety minutes, smooth conversation, maybe a glass of wine (or two) — by the time the COVID-19 pandemic reached France, the familiar rhythms of the French lunch break had long been established.

And then the government ordered the workers to go back to their offices.

In February 2021, the Lunch Break Act was put on hold for safety reasons. A public debate erupted over whether it was time to repeal the law for good.

Bruegel fought back, writing that this law was vital to France – but not for obvious reasons. “People are just happier when they take some rest during the workday,” he says. “It’s good for their well-being.”

Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

Diners will sit outside on terraces in Paris on May 19, 2021, while cafes, restaurants and other businesses have reopened as part of an easing of France’s lockdown due to COVID-19.

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Drop that fork! Why eating at your desk is banned in France : NPR

Diners will sit outside on terraces in Paris on May 19, 2021, while cafes, restaurants and other businesses have reopened as part of an easing of France’s lockdown due to COVID-19.

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He is quick to point out that the lunch break leads to better health outcomes. It makes employees more productive. But, he argues, there is a larger philosophical point. The lunch break isn’t just good for individuals or the companies they work for. It’s good for society.

“People who eat together are able to talk about problems, and they can work out tensions or different opinions. They create a culture where having different points of view is possible.”

It is the lunch break as a booster of conviviality. A place for serendipity. A public good.

Bruegel’s side eventually won. The suspension of the lunch law expired this year. French workers go back to the daily ritual of a communal meal, carving out a space that they can make themselves, even if they do it together.

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