EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?
Messing with the 35-hour rule in France does not generally go down lightly. Photo: AFP
Once again a French government is trying to have a go at the 35-hour week. But previous political attempts to tinker with the rule have not gone down well. Will this time around be different?

As French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday launched two months of intense talks to reform the French health sector, he confirmed that the 35-hour week would be one of the main points up for discussion.

“The key-word will be pragmatism,” Philippe said about the number of hours worked in hospitals, reiterating what Health Minister Olivier Véran had told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche the day before.

Véran had said he wanted to “render more flexible” the rules regulating working-hours in hospitals, to make it easier “for those who wish” to work more.

EXPLAINED: Why France is planning a massive overhaul of its healthcare system

Hitting at the 35-hour rule is in a way political business as usual in France. Many ambitious politicians have had a go at the law, claiming it stands in the way for France's economy to thrive the way it should.

But in the 20 years the law has existed, no one has yet managed to roll it back. Proponents hail it as a social totem, a milestone in the fight for worker's rights.

What is the 35-hour rule?

The 35-hour rule was adopted in 2000 under the Socialist Party Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and became mandatory for all French businesses in 2002.

Before that, France's upper work-limit was 39 hours a week, a rule established by then-President François Mitterrand, also from the Socialist Party.

While the 35-hour law did not make it illegal to work more than those hours, it did mean all additional hours had to be considered overtime.

The goal was to reduce unemployment by encouraging businesses to hire more people instead of making employees working more.

French hospital workers are protesting for increased salaries and better working conditions. Photo: AFP

Do the French actually work only 35 hours a week?

No, French people still work on average 39 hours a week, which is slightly lower than the EU average (40.3 hours a week).

The UK is the European country with the highest numbers of hours worked per week (42.3), followed by Cyprus, Austria and Greece – all of them between 41 and 42 hours a week.

But working more hours does not necessarily translate into more productivity. A 2018 study by the UK Trade Union Congress (TUC) saw findings proving the contrary. The TUC General Secretary told Euronews that a long-hours culture was “nothing to be proud of.”

 

But – and this is key – people who work more than 35 hours in  a week in France may be entitled to extra pay or extra days off, the precious RTT days (réductions de temps du travail).

This doesn't apply to everyone – generally people in management or executive positions forego RTT days and certain professions have also opted out but for many people working a 39 or 40 hour week means getting up to an extra fortnight off a year in reclaimed RTT days. 

French public sector workers who work a regular 35 hour week can get 34 RTT days a year – in addition to their statutory 25 holiday days – and private sector workers can get 27 – if they aren't exempt from the rule.

The gap widens as workers increase their hours. Public sector employees working more than 39 hours get 42 RTT days while the private sector employees can get 31.

There is also a difference between the public and private sector with respect to how many RTT days workers generally take, with Labour Ministry study from 2017 showing that employees in the public sector taking 46 on average and private sector employees taking 29. 

All in all, the RTT system is costly for the state, and the French research institute Montaigne has suggested that France could save around €7 billion a year by increasing the regular work-week to 38 or 39 hours.

French PM Edouard Philippe was joined by 300 online participants from the country's hospitals as he opened the two months-long discussion to redefine France's health sector. Photo: AFP

So why does the French government want to remove the rule?

Well, to save money, for one.

Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign pledge was not to abolish the 35-hour week completely, but to “return flexibility” to companies.

As the government has promised to “significantly” increase nurses’ salaries as a part of the new plan for the future of the French health sector, they know that this will lead to higher expenses for the hospitals.

That could mean seeing the government taking on more public expenses at a time when France is entering its worst recession since 1945.

If the government rolls back the 35-hour rule from the hospital sector, nurses and other health personnel could be asked to work more without being paid extra for the supplementary hours.

What would that mean for nurses?

What this would mean in practice is to be thrashed out in the coming two months, as the government prepares what the Prime Minister said would be “not a new direction, but a new pace” for the hospital sector.

Unions have already slammed the suggestion to remove the rule as “not corresponding to reality,” as they say most nurses generally work more than the legal limit without the extra hours necessarily being registered.

“A lot of people work more than 35 hours and they do overtime that is not always paid,” said Laurent Berger, General Secretary of France's largest worker's union CFDT on Monday to FranceInfo.
 
 
Unions say hospitals need to hire more people rather than the number of hours worked by the staff.
 
“We need to create more jobs in order for everyone to be able to take the days off that they have the right to take, as they, right now, often can't,” said Thierry Amouroux, union spokesperson for SNPI, to Les Obs.

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  1. The 35-hour week always had a feel of Friday night at the pub with your colleagues after work. So simplistic. Martine Aubry reckoned that if peoples’ working weeks were to be reduced to 35 hours, employers would have to take on extra personnel to make up the deficit. Great for the workers: they retained the same pay for shorter hours.
    But the reality, where it affected us, in the middle of restoring a property, all of a sudden the masons left on Friday lunchtime, so the work didn’t get completed, and the boss was left with paying more in wages without the work getting done. He couldn’t take on extra employees because it was not just a case of paying extra wages, but he would have had to provide an extra van and all the building equipment, concrete mixers, etc, for an extra team.
    Does the back of an envelope still exist from that Friday evening in the pub!

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