I Just Found Out It’s Illegal to Eat Lunch at Your Desk in France and Apparently, Some French People Didn’t Know Either

published Jun 21, 2022
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Businesswoman eating pasta while looking at computer in home office.
Credit: Getty Images/Maskot

Here in the States, we’ve long been fascinated by France. How do French people clean their kitchens? What groceries do they buy? How do they deal with fruit flies? (Truly, our obsession knows no bounds.) But the latest news out of France truly takes the cake — or rather, the tarte tatin.

In an episode of NPR’s Rough Translation that aired earlier this month, the podcast explored an arcane French law that prohibits workers from eating at their desks. The law, which was enacted in 1894, was created for safety reasons. Work at the time meant dusty, smoky, greasy factories, rather than well-lit cubicles. In order to clean the detritus from the factory floor without (further) damaging workers’ health, they were ordered to leave the building and lunch outside. 

For many French workers today, the law isn’t needed — taking an extended lunch break away from the office is as instinctual as scarfing down granola bars al desko is for Americans. In fact, some French people interviewed by NPR admitted they didn’t know it was a law. One American living abroad, a teacher named Kaitlin Plachy, observed of her French colleagues, “They’ll stay until 7 trying to get stuff done for the next day. And I’m thinking, you could have done that at lunchtime.”

Like many centuries-old laws still formally on the books, this offense isn’t punished with fines or jail time. But unlike others (looking at you, Alabama), this one is widely followed and considered socially preferable behavior. “It was just really looked down on. My boss at the time did explain to me, I think you’re not appreciating the full length of time that you should be taking for lunch,” Plachy explained.

Another reason this law has quietly stuck around? Bistro culture. Unlike us meal prep-crazy lot, many French people relish the opportunity to dine at a bistro midday. Personally, I was on board from the jump. But once you add “not doing your own dishes” to the equation, I’m totally Team France on this one. 

Do you take a lunch break or eat al desko?