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

People sit at La Gargouille's cafe terrace on Saint-Jean Square in Lyon, France, in 2016.
Philippe Desmazes
AFP via Getty Images
People sit at La Gargouille's cafe terrace on Saint-Jean Square in Lyon, France, in 2016.

This story is adapted from the latest episode of Rough Translation. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify 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. In France, that's forbidden.

The French labor code prohibits workers from eating lunch in the workplace. The solo work lunch is also shunned in a culture that prizes a change of pace — and scenery — during the midday meal.

Listen to this story's podcast episode

But the French lunch break wasn't always about bistros, leisurely meals and 90 minutes of amiable conversation. Many workers originally rejected the idea of leaving the workplace at all.

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

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

Germ theory

That's the argument food-culture historian Martin Bruegel makes.

"The workplace in the 1890s was full of health hazards," he says.

As cities grew and more workers had to travel to factories on the other side of town, their eating habits changed. The midday meal, traditionally made to be eaten at home, entered a new carryout phase. Lunch pails became increasingly common at the workplace. French fries bought at local markets were an occasional treat. Most of the actual eating was done on the factory floor.

Picture workers picking at their food with their fingers in matchbook factories, seamstress sweatshops and warehouses full of heavy machinery. From airborne tuberculosis to phosphorus fumes, these work sites were far from sanitary. "Even in department stores, there were more microbes and germs per cubic feet than outside."

In his recent essay, "Covid-19, Workday Lunch and the French Labor Code," Bruegel looked into the connection 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 was that we have to flush the work sites as we flush toilets," Bruegel says. "What is the best time to do that? It's usually when people eat!"

The government's answer: ban lunch in the workplace. Get the people outside and then open the windows to clear out the germs. That was the idea behind the 1894 decree that banned lunch at the workplace.

People gather outside Brasserie Légeron-Vetzel in Paris circa 1900.
ND / Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Roger Viollet via Getty Images
People gather outside Brasserie Légeron-Vetzel in Paris circa 1900.

There was another law, though: the law of unforeseen consequences. Bruegel points out that people would spill into crowded streets and littered parks.

"There was harassment of women in the streets. The first women's strike was actually carried out by the seamstresses demanding the right to eat in their workplace," Bruegel says. Eating outside was unseemly, they said. One female labor inspector noted in her report of 1901 that women saw the enforcement of the law as "tyrannical."

Legislators insisted that the law remain. Worker safety was at stake. And gradually, over decades, what a public health decree demanded — lunch outside the workplace — became a treasured part of French culture. These days, it's a standard sight to see workplaces shut their doors and bistros and restaurants swell with lunchtime patrons. The separation between work and lunch is almost sacrosanct.

Consider a recent protest at Bruegel's institute, France's National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, over the proposed introduction of American-style brown-bag seminars. "Lunchtime seminars were considered as socially regressive, intellectually insufficient and so on," he says, "because you needed a break in your work time!"

The remains of the break

Ninety minutes, free-flowing conversation, perhaps 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 workers back to their desks.

In February 2021, the lunch-break law was put on pause for safety reasons. Apublic debate ensued about whether it was time to repeal the law for good.

Bruegel fought back, writing that this law was vital to France — but not for the obvious reasons. "People are just simply happier when they take some downtime during the workday," he says. "It's good for their well-being."

Diners sit outdoors on terraces in Paris on May 19, 2021, as cafes, restaurants and other businesses reopened as part of an easing of France's lockdown due to COVID-19.
Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Diners sit outdoors on terraces in Paris on May 19, 2021, as cafes, restaurants and other businesses reopened as part of an easing of France's lockdown due to COVID-19.

The lunch break, he is quick to point out, does lead to better health outcomes. It does make workers more productive. But, he argues, there's a bigger philosophical point. The lunch break is not just good for individuals or the companies they work for. It's 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."

It's the lunch break as a driver of conviviality. A place for serendipity. A public good.

Bruegel's side eventually prevailed. The lunch law suspension expired this year. French workers are going back to the daily ritual of a shared meal, carving out a space that they get to make their own, even as they do it together.

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Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
Luis Trelles
Luis Trelles is a senior editor on NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit, where he helps shape international stories that hit close to home for the Rough Translation podcast.