The World Health Organization puts the suicide rate in France at 26.4 per 100,000 for men and 9.2 for women in 2005. That is the highest among large Western economies, but still well behind Japan, Belgium and several Central and East European countries. In the United States, the comparable rates are 17.7 for men and 4.5 for women.
What has caught the attention of the French media, public and government is that many of the suicides and more than a dozen failed attempts have been attributed to work-related problems by some experts and labor officials.
Adding to the furor is what Marie-France Hirigoyen, a psychiatrist who did pioneering work in France on bullying and workplace relations, described as the “spectacular” nature of some: In one case a man stabbed himself in the stomach in the middle of a meeting (he lived); in another, a woman killed herself by leaping from a fifth-floor office window. On Monday, a 51-year-old employee who worked in southeast France threw himself off a highway bridge.
The popular image outside France is of a work force that is pampered and protected from the damaging side effects of globalization by tight job security and the 35-hour work week. But the reality is often very different, according to experts, union representatives and the workers themselves.
“Stress has become a national sport,” said Michel Marchet, the secretary of the banking chapter of the C.G.T., a leading union in France. “We need employers to modify the way that they organize work, but we don’t have the impression that anything will happen soon.”
High labor costs — health insurance, unemployment, pensions — borne by employers in France create a reluctance to hire new workers, because job security means it is hard to get rid of them later if business turns down. Since those already on the payroll cannot be easily laid off, then companies must somehow make a place for them, even if their skills are no longer in demand. At the same time, companies increasingly rely on short-term employment contracts, which raise different strains on employees.
The seemingly comfortable French lifestyle has been made possible by the high productivity of the country’s workers. France ranks fifth in the world in terms of gross domestic product per hour worked, just behind the United States, according to a July report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Norway, with its oil wealth and tiny population, ranked No.1, followed by Belgium and the Netherlands.)
Yet even before the global economic downturn, Dr. Hirigoyen argued that job-related anxiety among the French has replaced most other concerns.
“When I started as a psychiatrist, 35 years ago, my patients were talking about their personal lives,” she said. “Now it’s all about their jobs. People are suffering in the workplace. They shouldn’t be, from the logic of management. After all, they have a good job, a nice vacation. But they are suffering.”
In 2006 and 2007, three technicians working at the automaker Renault’s research and development facility near Paris, committed suicide, according to Benoît Coquille, a company spokesman. At the time, union leaders cited pressures on the job. In response, Carlos Ghosn, the Renault chief executive, went to the facility to talk with workers and managers. Detailed questionnaires were sent to more than 11,000 employees and face-to-face meetings were held to discuss working conditions. Mr. Coquille said the company decided to go back and explain again basic management rules throughout the chain of command to make sure they were understood.
It is impossible to say that there have been no more work-related suicides, Mr. Coquille said, but since then, “there haven’t been any with an obvious connection to the job.”
France Télécom has now hired Technologia, the same consulting firm that helped to guide Renault’s response, to assess its own situation.