In the week marking the centenary of the entente cordiale, it is becoming apparent that the humble lunchtime sandwich may increasingly unite the UK and France. Because of increased work pressure, French consumers are finding that they have less time for lunch breaks. This has led to the growing popularity of convenience foods, and in particular of the British-style sandwich.

Ready-made sandwiches have long been a lunchtime staple of British employees. With the longest working hours in the EU, lunch breaks in the UK tend to be short affairs, and often take the form of a sandwich eaten at the desk in haste. This situation is unlikely to change soon since, uniquely in the EU, most UK employees have a clause effectively opting out of the Working Time Directive.

Traditionally, this has not been the case to the same extent in France.  Lunch was to be taken seriously and was not an occasion to be infringed upon. However, this situation has now been affected by legislation brought in during 2000 to limit the working week to 35 hours.

The French business environment has become more time-pressured as the same quantity of work has to be squeezed into a shorter week and the traditional long lunch break has suffered.

In the 1970s, French workers took on average an hour and quarter for lunch, but this has now fallen to only 38 minutes. This is particularly true in Paris and it is therefore mainly in the capital that the British sandwich has found an audience. Parisians have found that the packaged sandwich has all the attributes required from an on-the-go lunch product: it is quick to eat, not messy, and the filling choice is relatively varied.

This is good news for manufacturers of British-style packaged sandwiches, as these are increasingly finding favour with French employees. London-based firm Oldfields was already exporting 10,000 sandwiches a week to France in 2002.

However, this does not mean that French consumers have suddenly become enamoured with British culinary skills, and sandwiches made with sliced bread owe their new-found status more to their convenience that to their gastronomic qualities. Despite the modest triumph of the British-style sandwich, it may be a little early to claim that British eating habits have superseded French ones.

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