PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to revamp France’s 35-hour working week without picking a fight with trade unions by making it easier and more attractive for employees to work longer.
Introduced in 1998 when the opposition Socialists were in power, the 35-hour work week has been blamed by the ruling centre-right UMP and business for inflation, competitiveness problems, sluggish growth, and a host of other ills.
Past UMP governments have already done their bit to undermine the law by allowing some exemptions, and Sarkozy introduced tax breaks for firms and employees for overtime work — even before Thursday’s announcements.
“Everything that goes towards making the 35-hour week more flexible is a good thing,” said Yves-Thibault de Silguy, chairman of construction group Vinci, told reporters.
“The idea which seemed important to me was to say that we will raise purchasing power by encouraging work. That seems a good idea as measures taken ... to make the labor market more flexible help us to hire. It is positive.”
In a prime-time television interview on Thursday, Sarkozy said he would boost purchasing power by making it far easier for people to work more, rather than by raiding already empty state coffers for cash handouts.
He plans to allow firms to circumvent the 35-hour limit if they reach deals on pay increases, allow employees to choose cash rather than time off for overtime, and give workers more scope to work voluntarily, on double pay, on Sundays.
“Sarkozy opens the way to dismantling the 35-hour week” headlined the Le Monde daily, while the left-leaning Liberation newspaper ran an article entitled “The assault on the 35-hour week” and the government-friendly Le Figaro emblazoned “The end of the shackles of the 35-hour week” on its front page.
French workers’ reputation for enjoying short working weeks is only partly justified by data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development comparing the actual number of hours worked in different countries.
French employees on average worked more than Norwegian, Dutch, German or Belgian ones but less than pre-35 work week days, resulting in a widening gap between their working hours and those of American or British workers.
At a time when French firms face increasing international competition in goods and services, Vinci is not the only firm to welcome signs of new flexibility on how long people can work.
“French firms welcome, with great interest and hope, the proposal calling into question the 35-hour week subject to an accord with firms on wages,” business lobby MEDEF said.
Union reaction has so far been muted with the moderate CFDT saying it wanted any negotiations to also encompass broader employment issues while the Force Ouvriere limited itself to saying the proposals could pose risks to workers’ health.
The opposition Socialists were stronger in their attacks, seeing nothing positive in Sarkozy’s plans.
“For six years the (ruling) UMP has relentlessly been trying to eliminate the 35-hour work week without it having any effect on employment or purchasing power,” Michel Sapin, the Socialists’ economics expert said after Sarkozy’s announcements.
Financial market analysts agreed it was not yet clear whether the suggested changes would immediately set economic growth alight but said the idea was the good one.
“I don’t know whether it will have a positive impact on household income or employment but it is a step in the right direction,” said Dominque Barbet, economist at BNP Paribas.
“It will give companies more flexibility to staff work extra time on a voluntary basis when the firm needs it and so they gain more scope to cope with changes in the economic cycle.”
Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich; Editing by Jon Boyle