France Debates 35-hour Work Week

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So intensely do France's conservatives hate the 35-hour work-week that they're willing to work twice as much every week to do away with it. The problem is that the country's trade unions are as ferociously committed to defending it as an entitlement, leaving the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy appearing to speak from both sides of its mouth on the politically-charged issue. And amid the cacophony and confusion, employees remain suspicious that the government is seeking to extend the working week by stealth.

Another round of turmoil broke out Thursday as government officials sought to explain how the 35-hour week would remain the legal reference despite draft legislation that would effectively allow companies to make their own rules on overtime. The draft being prepared by Employment Minister Xavier Betrand ignores existing agreements on between unions and French business organizations on overtime and its remuneration, leaving it to individual employers to define working hours — a move the unions decry as making employees vulnerable to bullying by their bosses.

"The government is, in reality, organizing the end of the 35-hour week," charged François Chereque, head of the nation's largest union, Democratic Confederacy of French Labor, in Le Monde. "It's an affront, or a challenge. In any case, it's a provocation."

Infuriated at being steamrolled on the work week after already having agreed to cooperate on negotiating overtime rules, unions have called for large protest strikes on June 17. But labor leaders aren't the only ones feeling hoodwinked on the issue. "The right is in the process of creating social policies of revenge against all the employees of this country," said Socialist legislator Henri Emmanuelli. Nor was dismayed reaction to Bertrand's text limited to the left of the political spectrum. Laurence Parisot, president of the Medef employer's organization which is signatory to the agreements with unions, also disagreed with Bertrand's intended power play. "It was hardly a month ago that an accord was concluded, and the accord and its terms should be respected today," Parisot said.

Fair-play, rather than any affection for France's 35-hour work week, motivated Parisot's comment; elsewhere, she reiterated Medef's conviction that the 2000 law that created the institution should simply be repealed. Most members of France's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) agree, and have called for the statue to be struck from the books to give companies freedom to work longer hours at lower cost. Earlier in May, UMP president Patrick Devedjian expressed the longing of virtually all French conservatives by "forcefully requesting the definitive dismantlement of the 35-hour week". But in the face of ferocious reaction by labor leaders to that appeal and the applause it drew from UMP members, other conservatives were forced to quash the very suggestion. Indeed, given the political explosiveness of the topic, Sarkozy on Friday reiterated that "the length of the work week will remain 35 hours in France — something that is clear and on which the government will not stray".

Despite that assurance, the 35-hour week is viewed as so damaging to businesses — and so offensive to conservative attitudes to work — that the right remains bent on finding ways of gutting the entitlement even as they promise to preserve it. A prime example came Thursday, as Betrand sought to explain why his draft legislation would not mean the end of the 35-hour week as a legal reference. "Our logic is to say 'Does the 35 hours week work for certain companies? Then you can keep it'," Betrand said. "Does the 35-hour week block others? Then you can do more by negotiating new rules."

Sounds good, but unions, leftist opponents, and even most French pundits say the new rules as conceived by Bertrand's law will allow business to impose their requirements and conditions for overtime on employees, rendering the 35-hour law obsolete even if it remains on the books. But given the topic's hot-button status, some pundits warn Bertrand and the government against trying to have its cake and eat it. The last time someone in tried getting tricky with cake during a tense summer in Paris was Marie-Antoinette — and we know how she ended up.