The slacker's new bible

You sit next to idiots, loathe office bonhomie and crave escape. You're half- crazy with boredom, pretend to work when you hear footsteps and kill time by taking newspapers into the washrooms. Your career is blocked, your job is at risk and the most ineffective people get promoted to where they can do least harm: management. You recoil at jargon, consider the expression 'business culture' an oxymoron and wish you had the guts to resign. If this is you, help is at hand.

Bonjour paresse (Hello Laziness), a call to middle managers of the world to rise up and throw out their laptops, organigrams and mission statements, is the unexpected publishing sensation of the summer in France.

Sub-titled The Art and the Importance of Doing the Least Possible in the Workplace, the 113-page "ephlet" (part-essay, part-pamphlet) is to France's managerial class - the cadres - what the Communist Manifesto once was to the lumpen proletariat.

Written by Corinne Maier, an economist at state-owned Electricité de France, Bonjour paresse flashed albeit briefly to the number one spot on Amazon's French best-seller list.

An anarchic antidote to management tomes promising the secrets of ever greater productivity, Bonjour paresse is a slacker's bible, a manual for those who devote their professional lives to the sole pursuit of idleness.

There have been many works in praise of idleness over the decades, but with the French work ethic weakened by the introduction of the 35 hour work week, the siren's appeal has never been stronger.

The truculent chapter titles, including Business Culture: My Arse!, The Cretins Who Sit Next To You, The Best Management Con-Tricks and Why You Lose Nothing By Resigning, set the tone of the book.

Ms Maier is the closest thing France has to Scott Adams, the comic genius behind the best-selling Dilbert cartoon strips in the U.S., whose influence strongly marks her writing. Like Adams's satires of life in corporate America, her observations generate one universal reaction among readers: "Ohmigod, that's just like my company!"

The actively disengaged
Over lunch at the Café Bonaparte off the Boulevard Saint Germain, the 40-year-old mother of two says it is time for wage slaves to hit back. "Businesses don't wish you well and don't respect the values they champion. This book will help you take advantage of your company, rather than the other way around. It will explain why it's in your interest to work as little as possible and how to screw the system from within without anyone noticing."

Many already are. An IFOP poll cited in the book claims 17 percent of French managers are already so "actively disengaged" with their work that they are practically committing industrial sabotage.

Even if Bonjour paresse is quite obviously a tongue-in-cheek send-up of French corporate life, EDF, is far from amused and has started disciplinary action.

But the book is about so much more than EDF. It is a book of its time and place. France is entering a long-promised Age of Leisure. No other OECD country has witnessed as dramatic a fall in the number of hours worked per inhabitant.

In its 2004 employment outlook, the OECD reported that the French worked 24 per cent fewer hours than in 1970, whereas Americans toiled 20 percent more. France was not alone. Large declines were also seen in Germany and Japan. But the situation in France is extreme.

Two factors explain why. First, the proportion of people of working age in France who manage to find jobs has plunged to 61.9 percent, compared to over 70 percent in the UK, the U.S. and Denmark. Second, the introduction of the 35 hour week means French workers put in less time than ever.

Ms Maier, who works just 2 ½ days a week, is hardly unusual. The average French worker clocks only 1,459 hours per year, compared with a mean of 1,762 for the OECD as a whole and almost 2,000 for the Stakhanovites in the Czech Republic.

As the rest of the world becomes "always-on", bosses complain French workers are now "always-off".

In the Dilbert comics, one lesson is that it is not enough for you to succeed, others must fail. You have to improve your own standing by subtly disparaging those who surround you.

Demotivating others is also a core management skill as with employee self-esteem come unreasonable requests for money. There are many ways to make it clear to the grunts that their work is not valued: reading magazines when they are talking to you, asking for information "urgently" then leaving it untouched for weeks, and having your secretary return their calls or e-mails.

In Bonjour paresse, the very notion of personal advancement is ludicrous. Whereas Scott Adams drew his inspiration from his nine years as a middle manager occupying cubicle 4S700R for the Pacific Bell phone company, Ms Maier has had a very different taste of life in the executive slow lane - twelve years in the bowels of the French public sector.

This bureaucratic sprawl provides jobs for an astonishing one in four workers in France and enough comic material to keep business humorists in work for decades. Yet it is the private sector she most abhors.

Ms Maier describes how middle managers who have no strings to pull fail to win promotion because all the senior positions in big French companies are monopolized by well-connected alumni of the elite grandes écoles, notably the énarques from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

She writes for a group of people who no longer believe that work is the path to personal fulfilment. "It is de rigueur to claim you work because 'your job interests you' and even if in reality everyone is only there to pay the bills at the end of the month, it is a complete taboo to say so," she says. "One day I said in the middle of a meeting that I could only be bothered to turn up in order to put food on the table: there was 15 seconds of absolute silence during which everyone looked agonized."

It is a world where the over 50s are shoved out the door in early retirement programs at a rate that has left only a third of France's 55-64 year olds still working - "a world record", Ms Maier says. It is a world where companies parrot "our people are our most important asset" yet throw them out like used Kleenex. It is a world where impossible demands are made of the young thruster who believes the words pro-active and benchmarking actually mean something and who hopes his talents will be recognized and that he will be loved and cherished.

The disenchantment with corporate life is total. Forget In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré's faddish new treatise on "marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age" and all the other wimpy pleas for work-life balance. It is hard to see Ms Maier and her electrician buddies rushing into new Spanish siesta salons' selling 20 minutes of sleep for €4. They'd much rather zonk out on the job for free. There's no "I don't know how she does it" quest for the tempo giusto because the object of work is simply to do as little of it as possible.

So what are some of her ten commandments for the idle? Take number three: "As what you do is pointless and as you can be replaced from one day to the next by the cretin sitting next to you, work as little as possible and spend time (not too much, if you can help it) cultivating your personal network so that you're untouchable when the next restructuring comes around."

Then there's number five: "Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. You'll only have to work more in exchange for a few thousand more francs (effectively peanuts)." The others are in similarly, subversive vein.

A publisher's surprise
Bonjour paresse initially seemed destined to disappear without trace. Published at the end of April by the little-known Editions Michalon, the book, whose title is a nod to Françoise Sagan's 1954 novel Bonjour tristesse, generated little comment. At the end of July, however, Le Monde, the leading daily, unexpectedly devoted a front page article to EDF's disciplinary action against the book's author. The newspaper of reference reported that Ms Maier had been summoned to a preliminary hearing on Aug. 17th.

Failing to see the funny side, EDF accused Ms Maier of "repeatedly failing to respect her obligations of loyalty towards the company," and of running a "personal campaign, clearly proclaimed in the book, to spread gangrene through the system from within." Citing her habit of reading newspapers in meetings and of leaving one gathering early on May 3rd, the charge sheet also alleged she had neglected to secure permission to mention on the back cover that she worked for EDF.

Corinne Maier is as bolshy and unrepentant as her book leads you to expect. Her motor-bike helmet by her side and her long brown hair looking like it could use a good brush, she declares she has no intention of attending the disciplinary meeting. "It's the middle of August and I will obviously be on holiday," she says. "I have sent them copies of my train and ferry reservations to prove it." But she insists she is not looking to get fired. Her situation clearly suits her well.

Born into a family of aluminium siding salesmen, she studied in Paris at Sciences-Po, the French equivalent of the London School of Economics, before taking further degrees in industrial economics and later a doctorate in psychoanalysis. She has found time to write eight books since 2001, including several works on Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst. Three of these come out later this year, two introductory books on Gaullism and Nazi Germany and "a more intello" book on Pasteur.

France's unions have championed her cause. They see EDF as determined to crush all sources of dissent to its transformation from quintessential symbol of the French public service into a regular société anonyme, a public company that the center-right government will then be able to privatize. An umbrella body representing the six main unions at EDF has issued a statement defending Ms Maier's freedom of speech, saying she had "not revealed any secrets, jeopardized any business or even mentioned EDF by name once in the book."

"EDF has cited the pettiest offenses," says Ms. Maier. "The real reason is that they don't like my book." Refusing to comment on "an ongoing disciplinary procedure", EDF is belatedly trying to bury the row its own clumsy response had started. The book, however, is already being re-printed. "My publisher is delighted with EDF's reaction," says Ms Maier. "It is all thanks to them that we have a best-seller. We have had interest from numerous overseas publishers wanting the translation rights."