Caution: Men Working

Not quite tout Paris is on holiday. Check out La Defense in mid-evening and you'll see some stressed-out people in business attire, headed home after another long day. They're among the hundreds of executives, bankers, lawyers and accountants laboring away on a trio of mammoth mergers. Over time, their efforts may have far more effect on French work life than any 35-hour workweek laws.

Just ask Jean-Pierre Rodier, CEO of French aluminum maker Pechiney. Last week he joined with Jacques Bougie and Sergio Marchionne, his counterparts at Canada's Alcan and Switzerland's Algroup, to announce a three-way, $19 billion combination. Meanwhile, oil companies Elf and TotalFina battled on to see who will take over whom, as did three big banks, with BNP trying to thwart the merger of two rivals (Societe Generale and Paribas) by bidding for both. Three industries, but just one theme: global competitiveness. Whoever wins, these deals are about raising French standards for efficiency, return on investment--and sheer hustle.

Starting with the dealmaking itself. Elf CEO Philippe Jaffre is forgoing vacation while he plots his counterattack on TotalFina. France's warring bankers are managing brief respites, since their fight is now in the hands of shareholders, with results due this week. "You take a week when you can get it," says one employee. Pechiney executives, whose deal awaits approval by the company's "workers council," likewise figure they can afford a week (not a month) away.

Or can they? The very day they announced their new company, Alcoa--the ultra-efficient U.S. giant--made its countermove: a hostile bid for America's Reynolds. Competing in this league is no day at the beach.