France to relax 35-hour working week

9th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 9 (AFP) - The French National Assembly on Wednesday approved a reform of the controversial 35-hour working week - the Socialist measure introduced to cut unemployment but which is blamed by the right for doing exactly the reverse.

PARIS, Feb 9 (AFP) - The French National Assembly on Wednesday approved a reform of the controversial 35-hour working week - the Socialist measure introduced to cut unemployment but which is blamed by the right for doing exactly the reverse.

After several delays caused by filibustering by the left-wing opposition, the bill passed by 370 votes to 180 in the parliament's lower house where the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) loyal to President Jacques Chirac has a clear majority.

The measure will now go to the upper house, or Senate, in early March before being signed into law in a few weeks.

The vote came four days after unions and the Socialist Party (PS) mobilised more than 350,000 people in a series of demonstrations across the country to protest against the planned changes.

Under the reform, the standard working week will remain 35 hours, but staff in the private sector will be able to strike deals with management to work up to 13 hours of overtime.

Employees will also be encouraged to "sell back" the compensatory days off that they earn if they work more than 35 hours a week. Known as RTT days, these will be more easily convertible for salary or improved pension rights.

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin says the aim is to restore the work ethic in France and give people the right to "earn more by working more."

It points out that the change is not compulsory and does not apply at all to the large public sector.

However the Socialists - whose former labour minister Martine Aubry brought in the 35-hour week in 1998 - describe the reform as a "fool's bargain" and say it will in practice be impossible for employees to refuse if management asks for extra hours.

For the left, the reduced working week was a mechanism for sharing out the nation's available labour among more people and thus bringing down unemployment - which did indeed fall during a period of strong economic growth until 2002.

But the government has the backing of the business lobby when it argues that the change has put up the cost of hiring staff, scared off international investors and is in fact helping sustain France's stubborn jobless rate of nearly 10 percent.

Opinion polls before Saturday's demonstrations showed that 69 percent of the public sympathise with or support the campaign to maintain the 35-hour week, which has allowed many in the public sector and large companies to enjoy more time with their families or in recreation.

Aubry has accused the government of hypocrisy for arguing that the reduced week is damaging the country but then failing to do away with it completely.

Coming shortly after three days of street protests by state sector unions, Saturday's demonstrations suggested growing public discontent at France's sluggish growth and the strains caused by adaptation to the global economy.

There are growing fears that this unease will be harnessed by the campaign for a "no" vote at the approaching referendum on the Euroepan Union constitution. A poll last weekend showed that the "no" camp rose by five points to 40 percent in a month.

© AFP

Subject: French News

0 Comments To This Article