• France edition
 
Analysis - The 35-hour week
Is it time for France to ditch the 35-hour week?
Could ditching the 35-hour workweek fix France's economy? Photo: Daniel Janin/AFP

Is it time for France to ditch the 35-hour week?

Published: 17 Jun 2014 11:23 GMT+02:00
Updated: 17 Jun 2014 11:23 GMT+02:00

In 2006 the former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, one of the key protagonists behind the creation of France’s 35-hour work week, defended the reform by simply saying: "One makes more, while working less."

“When you bring working hours down from 39 to 35 per week without a reduction in salary, you, by definition, give a comparative advantage to workers," Jospin went on.

While Jospin's supporters marvelled at the humane piece of economic policy that was introduced in 2000, his critics, both in France and beyond its borders, have continued to argue the now sacred 35-hour week acts as a jobs-killer and a brake on the economy.

Not surprisingly as France continues to struggle to breathe life into the ailing economy, MPs have decided it is once again time to look at the question of whether the country would be better off ditching this landmark Socialist legislation, that makes France unique in the European Union.

A new commission has been tasked with looking at the “societal, social, economic and fiscal impact” of the law, although for now at least, there's certainly no talk of ditching something that is as synonymous with France as foie gras and rail strikes.

But what would happen if the commission's report or even the financial crisis persuaded the government that it was time to scrap the flagship legislation?

‘Catastrophic harm for France’

For economist Henri Sterdyniak from the French Economic Observatory ditching the 35-hour work week when the economy is in dire straits would have "catastrophic" consequences. If French leaders decide to end the shortened week, now is not the time, he tells The Local.

“It would mean companies wouldn’t have to hire anyone. That would have a catastrophic impact on the unemployment rate,” Sterdyniak said. “It would essentially be telling firms to use their current workers ten times more instead of hiring others.

If employees were told they had to again work 39 hours per week, as they did prior to the reforms in 2000, and got no corresponding pay increase, the subsequent cost-free boost in productivity for companies would simply dissuade them from recruiting, Sterdyniak argues.

But dissuading companies from hiring is certainly not what the French government is looking to do at a time of record unemployment. In fact, France plans to cut €50 billion from its budget in the next three years in order to pay for a reduction in payroll taxes on businesses, with the goal of encouraging companies to hire more people.

The 35-hour work week was born of an idea that if everyone puts in just a few hours less on the job it would create a need for extra workers. Jospin's government also handed over billions in subsidies to companies to make up for the cost and added flexibility to how employees’ work time is calculated, all with the intent to spur hiring.

Numerous exceptions in reality mean the 35-hour week applies to slightly less than half of French workers, and does not include managers. A labour ministry report published last year revealed French workers put in an average of 39.5 hours a week in 2011, slightly behind the EU average of 40.3 hours and the 41-hour working week in Germany and 42.4 hours in the UK.

The same survey showed French middle-management worked an average of 44.1 hours a week.

But to get around the 35-hour week law most companies simply offer workers extra days holiday, known as RTT, in return for working a 39-hour week.

(Hospital workers protest changes to the 35-hour policy at their hospital in 2002. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP) 

Boost for France’s economy

But not everyone agrees with Sterdyniak that France would be making its ailing economy even sicker by tossing aside the 35-hour work week.

Jérôme Dubus from France’s bosses' union Medef told The Local a longer week is exactly what France needs.

For Dubus the shorter week has played an integral part in pushing up French labour costs and driving down its productivity. 

While in Germany, workers cost their employers €30 per hour, in France it is €33 an hour, said Dubus, and in France workers are on the job for an average of 200 hours a year less than their neighbours, he claimed. The knock-on effect of those figures is that France is producing less and less, leaving it with a €70 billion trade deficit.

'It's about workers' buying power'

Dubus argues getting rid of the 35-hour week would be like taking one’s foot off the brake of a slow-rolling vehicle.

“The goal is to produce more. If you produce more, you are going to have to create jobs,” Dubus said. “Getting rid of the 35-hour week would allow people to work more, spur growth and productivity. Thus it would create new jobs," he said.

He noted the new, longer working week could be rolled out gradually to ease the pain of changing. Though in the end, he believes, it would be well worth it.

"Ultimately this is about workers' buying power," he said. "When people make more money it's good for the economy. They spend it and it helps the whole system."

Economist Gérard Cornilleau, of the French Economic Observatory, also believes French firms would be boosted if dropping the 35-hour week came without any increase in wages. Cheaper labour would mean an advantage for France over its neighbours in the European Union.

"You would have a massive increase in competitiveness. Basically it would decrease everyone’s salary by ten percent,” said Cornilleau.

However, on a warning note, he said: “If it would be good for France, it would be very bad for the EU and basically what is bad for Europe is also bad for France.”

Would it end the stereotype of the 'work-shy French'?

Although productivity in France is above Germany’s and close to that of the United States, according to 2011 data from the Paris-based OECD think tank, the 35-hour week is often used to push the stereotype of work-shy French employees and can dissuade foreign investors.

American CEO Maurice Taylor zeroed in on that reputation in a harsh letter to a French minister in 2013. "The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three," Taylor told Arnaud Montebourg, after being asked to invest in a doomed French tyre factory.

For the Observatory's Cornilleau though, it’s laughable to think doing away with the 35-hour week could help undo the potentially damaging stereotypes some hold of France.

“Just because we have a legal maximum working week of 35 hours that doesn’t mean that we work less than other countries,” Cornilleau told The Local. "If we just dropped the 35 hours like that, then yes we would have a reputation, but it would be for all the strikes and protests that would follow," Dubus jokes.

Share your views on the 35-hour-week in the comments section below.

Don't miss stories about France, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France plan air lifts to help fight Ebola
Liberian Red Cross health workers, wearing protective suits, carry the body of a 18-old-month baby, victim of the Ebola virus in Monrovia. AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso

France plan air lifts to help fight Ebola

France and Germany will send military transport planes to West Africa to help efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and military officials said on Friday. READ  

Moody's keeps France on negative outlook
Credit ratings agency Moody's said that France till has significant credit strengths. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Moody's keeps France on negative outlook

Moody's maintained its negative rating on France on Friday but -- despite earlier reports -- did not deal the struggling economy a downgrade. READ  

Air France strike to continue another week
Air France pilots have voted to continue their strike for another week. Photo: AFP

Air France strike to continue another week

Air France pilots voted on Friday to extend their strike for another week, while management has showed no signs of compromising, according to French media reports. Roughly half of the flagship carrier's flights have remained grounded due to the action. READ  

‘Red tape France’ tops UN e-efficiency list
France apparently isn't the world capital of red tape. Photo: Department for Communities and Local Government/Flickr

‘Red tape France’ tops UN e-efficiency list

France, notorious for its jungle of red-tape, has apparently been undersserving of some of that criticism. A new report ranks France as the best country in Europe when it comes to online government services. READ  

Sarkozy announces his return to French politics
Nicolas Sarkozy is back in French politics. Photo: AFP

Sarkozy announces his return to French politics

In a long-expected announcement, Nicolas Sarkozy said he will return to French politics with a bid for his party's presidency, which many believe is the first step toward a run at France's top elected office. READ  

Paris installs new device to stop 'love lock' craze
The days of the love locks craze in Paris may be numbered. Photo: AFP

Paris installs new device to stop 'love lock' craze

'Love locks' have become such a problem in Paris the city has just installed panels intended to block couples from latching their passion to the town's infrastracture, leaving it straining under a dangerous load. READ  

Paris cabby dies in vicious high-heel attack
Photo: Heel: Shutterstock

Paris cabby dies in vicious high-heel attack

A Paris taxi driver has died after angry passengers beat and stabbed him with stiletto high heel shoes during a drunken night out in the French capital. READ  

France launches first bombing runs on Isis
France got praise from US President Barack Obama for its decision to bomb Isis militants. Photo: Jean-Luc Brunet/AFP

France launches first bombing runs on Isis

France launched its first airstrikes on Friday against the Isis militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria. Word of the bombing came less than 24 hours after French President François Hollande promised military action. READ  

French crook fakes his funeral to escape cops
The reports of one French crook's death were, it turns out, greatly exaggerated. Photo: Graves: Shutterstock

French crook fakes his funeral to escape cops

A wanted French criminal crafted a detailed plan to fake his own death, but there was just one problem: the police turned up at his 'funeral'. READ  

French leaders relieved by Scotland's 'No' vote
French leaders heaved a sigh of relief over Scotland's 'no' vote. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP

French leaders relieved by Scotland's 'No' vote

There was plenty of relief in France's political classes on Friday after Scottish voters decisively rejected independence from the United Kingdom. One top minister said a 'yes ' vote would have hurt the European Union. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Marks & Spencer
Sponsored Article
Fashion Ladies of the Local: Win a New Autumn Look
National
Ten great bars in Paris only locals know about
Society
France's top expat tribes: Which are you?
National
France to set flat-rate for Paris airport taxis
Politics
French separatists want Scots to say 'yes'
National
Anti-dog poo offensive launched in French town
National
Scammers attack Paris's top cop at tourist hotspot
National
French leader didn't pay his rent for three years
National
'WW2 bomb' kills camper on French island
Does France have a racism problem?
National
National
'Enough gloom, France is an amazing country'
Gallery
The top ten tourist traps to avoid in France
Politics
The juiciest bits from Trierweiler's tell-all book
Politics
Trierweiler tells all: 'Hollande wanted me back, at any price'
Education
'Sacre bleu!' Do the French really say that?
Politics
Manuel Valls has plenty in common with Tony Blair, but not background
International
Votes for expats: Plan to end UK's 15-year rule
Gallery
Ten dos and don'ts for keeping your French in-laws happy
National
Unemployment: How does France compare to Europe?
International
Are all the talented professionals really leaving France?
National
La France profonde: Is it a rural idyll or a backwater hell?
Travel
Check out the four new attractions coming to Paris this autumn
Gallery
The French words you can't translate literally
National
Ten things you need to know about France's economics whizzkid
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se