Why France's 35 Hour Week Won't Die

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A Renault factory in France

Call it the law that just won't die. Six months after France's ruling Conservatives voted to gut the nation's famous 35-hour work week, anecdotal evidence suggests most companies are sticking with it. French corporations and smaller firms furiously denounced the Socialist's 1998 work-week reduction, and last year's law change allows employers to force staff to work longer hours. But most bosses appear to have stuck with the shorter week, to avoid disputes with leisure-loving employees, and, it seems, as a useful tool in dealing with the growing economic downturn.

It's a classic example of what the French call a pétard mouillé — or soggy firecracker that fails to explode. Few of the expected changes to the 35-hour week have materialized since France's Conservative government passed a measure in July designed to make it easier for bosses to force their employees to work more. The move retained the 35-hour week as the nominal legal reference to undercut union protest, but then rendered it nonsensical by giving employers a free hand to set far longer work requirements. So far, however, bosses haven't seen fit to make such moves. (See pictures of Sarkozy's visit to London.)

"The revision was a purely ideological effort to undo a landmark Socialist law, and ignored the fact most companies and workers don't want to change the 35-hour arrangement," says Eric Heyer, an economist and deputy director of the French Economic Observatory in Paris. "And by allowing companies to calculate employee time worked on a yearly rather than strict weekly basis as the previous law required, the 35-hour law provides businesses with badly needed flexibility to adapt to evolving activity at lower cost."

Michaël Zenevre, general manager of AGCP, a 14-employee advertising and marketing company located near the city of Nancy in North-Eastern France, agrees. Zenevre says he doesn't plan on dumping the 35-hour arrangement anytime soon even though the shorter week initially hurt his and other companies financially and required long and often acrimonious negotiation with workers.

More crucially, perhaps, the 35-hour week's survival owes a lot to other measures the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has passed as part of its mantra of "work more to earn more." Key to that is a provision introduced in late 2007 that makes overtime more profitable to both companies and employers by waving taxes and social charges. The ironic result: bosses and workers now find they can have their 35-hour cake and eat 25% bonus time too. "Rather than increasing the set week to 37, 39, or 40 hours — and have to raise fixed salaries proportionally — it's more logical to stay at 35 hours, and go beyond or below it with affordable extra-time as demand surges or decreases," says Zenevre, who is also head of the Lorraine regional section of France's General Confederation of Small- and Medium-Sized Businesses, the nation's largest employer category. "This flexibility is particularly valuable with the recession setting in and really disrupting demand."

Indeed, large industrial groups such as carmakers Renault and PSA (which makes Peugeots and Citroëns) are now responding to the massive slow-down in the auto sector by temporarily closing plants and imposing stored or anticipated time off on workers under their retained 35-hour schemes. That may not be how employees had planned to use their time off, but it beats being laid off.

Even non-industrial groups not yet affected by the recession have kept the 35-hour week — or developed alternatives to it. Executives at the Paris headquarters of communications company Vivendi continue to work 35-hour weeks, or swap it for an arrangement in which extra hours worked can be exchanged for days off. (Vivendi's other workers continue to work under the 35-hour arrangement.)

But while 35-hour order reigns, Zenevre and others note that the array of complicated schemes using tax-free extra time will need restructuring once the bad times are over. Some employees argue that the 35-hour limit may need to be legally lengthened to prevent bosses from forcing extra hours on them they don't want.

"Because virtually all employees are women, the previous owner of our company set a weekly scheme of 33 hours worked at 35 hours of pay so we could spend more time with children and families," says Estelle, a cosmetics sales woman in a Paris store who asks that her last name not be used. "The new owner is now seeking volunteers for 35 hours at no extra pay, as well as people for extra-time work for more pay. My fear is, before long none of that will be voluntary any more."

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