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Jacques Brinon, Pool/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French Businesses Hesitant to Implement Longer Workweek

September 04, 2008 05:12 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Employers are balking at a key policy initiative from French President Nicolas Sarkozy that allows businesses to lengthen the country’s workweek.

30-Second Summary

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Entrenched ideas of employment rights among the French workforce are pushing some businesses to shy away from having people work longer days. This is in spite of Sarkozy's move in July to make a 35-hour workweek a "reference week" rather than a hard-and fast rule. The law also allows an annual maximum of 235 working days, rather than 215 as before.

Elected on a campaign platform of economic stimulation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rejection of the country’s “imposed 35-hour workweek” was not a surprise.

But Gilles Lecontre, the chief executive of Paris-based economic consulting firm Intercessio, told the Associated Press that the 35-hour workweek was "a very bad thing. It devalued work, it's unhealthy and difficult." Likening any attempts to have employees work longer hours to "haggling over a carpet with a rug merchant," he is not extending workdays at his firm for now.

The 35-hour workweek was adopted in 1998 to attack the country’s unemployment problem. Indeed, with fewer working hours per employee, employers were compelled to hire 350,000 more workers between the promulgation of the new law and 2002.

Yet Sarkozy condemned the idea and other elements of the socialist agenda as constrictive to the French economy. But some economists, such as Nicolas Bouzou of research firm Asteres, pointed to a slump in job growth since the initial hiring boom. "For the whole 10-year period, the net result was zero," Bouzou told the AP. Bouzou continued to point out, however, that the possibility of more hours worked would contribute only a projected 0.3 percent to economic growth in 2009.

The reform means that the “reference week” will stay at 35 hours, but the law now enables individual businesses to negotiate the length of the workweek with its unions and end compensatory vacation days for overtime, offering overtime pay instead.

White-collar unionists protested the decision in Paris in July. The Scotsman explains why executives stand to lose the most from the reforms: “Under the old rules, employees who worked overtime were able to exchange the extra hours worked for days off. … Mr Sarkozy’s determination to extend the working week spells the end of all those long weekends for the country’s managers.”

According to The Economist, strikes are a French tradition and unions have “an entrenched official role on company works councils and in industry-wide collective bargaining.” But the union protest against Sarkozy, thanks to careful strategizing, “has lost its edge.”

France24.com cited the insignificance of reforms, predicting that they will take time to enforce and “will have limited impact.”

Headline Link: Possibility of longer workweek poses human resources dilemma

Background: France’s 35-hour workweek explained

Opinion & Analysis: What does a longer workweek mean for France?

Key Player: Nicolas Sarkozy

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