PERIGUEUX, France, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- Americans are working more hours than ever. Not so the French. They officially put in a mere 35 a week.
In the mid-90s, then-employment minister Martine Aubry pushed through a reform affecting companies employing more than 20 people, to reduce the working week, without a corresponding shrink in wages.
True French bakers are not among the beneficiaries.
These artisans, working in tiny family-run bakeries, make their bread mixing and kneading by hand. They use no factory manufacturers' corner-cutting additives and allow as much as eight hours for the total risings for bread that is made fresh for sale at 7 a.m., again mid-morning for lunch and finally in the early evening for dinner.
To do this, they toil an average of 65.6 hours a week -- much of these during the night -- more hours than any other French profession.
Still, they wouldn't have it any other way.
In 1995, 5,000 traditional small bakers from around the country gathered at the Eiffel Tower in Paris then marched through the capital demanding the right to be formally recognized as "artisans-boulangers" - craft bakers.
There was such stiff opposition from industrial bakers to this proposition that it wasn't until 1999 that the "artisans-boulangers" got their way.
Victory doesn't disguise the fact that since 1965, 29 percent of craft bakers have closed down. In that year, there were 48,400. Thirty years later, in the year of their protest, the number was 35,000.
But even as the French parliament was debating the implications of the word "artisan," lobbyists for France's industrial bakers were besieging European Union officials in Brussels to be allowed to use the numerous chemical additives, preservatives, bleaches and sweeteners employed by American bakers, that profitably make bread feel fresher longer.
Now industrial breadmaking accounts for more than 30 per cent of the market, with deliveries to supermarkets the target, to save the weary housewife a separate trip to the local artisan baker. She is so happy with this that while sales of traditional loaves have dropped, baguette sales -- the prime supermarket loaf -- continue to rise, to over 2.7 billion in a country of 60 million people, even as the French are only eating 1/3 of a pound of bread daily, compared to 2 pounds a head in 1900.
Still, the artisan bakers are making inroads, particularly in the specialty breads market. Now you can buy baguettes made with "bio" flour -- all guaranteed pure and unsullied by fertilizers and other chemical interference.
Sales of artisan breads with chewy unbleached dough - a far cry from the crusty baguette so delicious with cold butter and apricot jam - are beginning to rise, with housewives increasingly happy to pay the higher price for traditional, country loaves.