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

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?

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

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.

Member comments

  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!

  2. The idea always was to force employers to hire the staff they needed to conduct business. If business increased, then staff should increase. Instead, employers want to pocket the added profits and squeeze the workers as had as it can.

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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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