Did France Actually Ban Checking Work Emails After 6? Not Quite.

Paris business district
People walk on the esplanade of La Defense, in the financial and business district west of Paris April 10, 2014 Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The Internet has been set aflame—and made a little envious—by the news that France has passed a law making it illegal to answer work emails after 6 p.m. Here are a random sampling of headlines:

France has banned checking work emails after 6 p.m. http://t.co/PdS2n7CgV2

— New York Magazine (@NYMag) April 10, 2014

It's now illegal to answer work emails after 6 p.m. in France. Book your one-way tickets. http://t.co/r4xjNePZ61

— Mashable (@mashable) April 10, 2014

France just made it illegal to answer work emails after 6 pm: http://t.co/VE6mmSL5nW

— Fast Company (@FastCompany) April 10, 2014

The truth, as is often the case with revelations that capture the fleeting, fickle, viral imagination, is a bit fuzzier. It's also evidence that most Americans haven't a clue how France's employers' federations and unions work.

The "law" was in fact an agreement between one federation of employers and two different workers' unions taking aim at expectations that workers be plugged in all hours. Those who speak French can read the terms of that agreement here.

So why the confusion? Most of the misreporting stems from a Guardian article from Wednesday:

Après noticing that the ability of bosses to invade their employees' home lives via smartphone at any heure of the day or night was enabling real work hours to extend further and further beyond the 35-hour week the country famously introduced in 1999, workers' unions have been fighting back. Now employers' federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require employers to make sure staff "disconnect" outside of working hours.

As BuzzFeed points out, the article's errors are numerous. The deal certainly doesn't affect all French workers, and in fact affects far less than the million the Guardian reports. The correct number is closer to 250,000 employees—a tiny fraction of France's population.

And, curiously, the agreement doesn't specify 6 p.m. at all. The employees it affects, in fact, work outside France's conventional 35-hour workweek. Some of them work up to 78 hours a week—hence the interest in protecting them from the scourge of all-hour communication.

But if those employees want to continue replying to work-related emails after working 10-, 11-, or even 13-hour days, there is no legally binding legislation stopping them from doing so.

Again, here is the text of the agreement in question:

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