Mass demos in France for shorter working week

4th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 5 (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of French people took part in demonstrations across the country Saturday to protest against government plans to reform the 35-hour work week.

PARIS, Feb 5 (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of French people took part in demonstrations across the country Saturday to protest against government plans to reform the 35-hour work week.  

Organised by an alliance of trade-unions and backed by the opposition Socialist party (PS), more than half a million people took part in marches in 100 towns and cities - with 90,000 joining the largest demonstration in Paris. Police put the overall figure at slightly more than 250,000.  

The protests came as a bill to enable private sector employees to opt for longer hours makes its way through parliament. The bill is expected to pass its first reading in the National Assembly on Monday.  

The key social change of the last Socialist administration, the mandatory 35-hour week has been attacked by President Jacques Chirac's centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) for putting up the cost of labour and helping create the country's stubbornly high unemployment.  

However the left accuses the government of trying to turn back the clock, and jeopardising social progress via an ideological obsession with labour market flexibility.  

Polls showed that nearly 70 percent of the public support or have sympathy with the protests, which come after three days of strikes in the public sector late last month.  

The left-wing opposition is seeking to build on public discontent about low pay and joblessness to mount a concerted campaign against the government's economic policies, which it says are driven by the interests of business and not of ordinary workers.  

However the left is itself divided about how hard to push the campaign. Many fear that it could merge with the growing opposition to the EU's proposed constitution - which union and Socialist leaders are pledged to support at a referendum later this year.  

"I see a lot of anger out there about the fall in disposable income, a lot of unhappiness about how the government won't listen, and a lot of people mobilising in the hope of a change of power in 2007," said PS leader Francois Hollande at a demonstration in the western city of Rennes.  

"But that has nothing to do with the European constitution. It would be wrong to put the blame on Europe for what the government is doing today," he said.  

Concern that opposition to the EU constitution is gaining influence over left-wing voters was increased this week when the country's biggest union - the CGT - voted overwhelmingly in its 120-member national council to defy its leadership and reject the treaty.  

Under the government's reform of the 35-hour law, the number of overtime hours employees can work per year will be increased from 180 to 220. In addition businesses will be able to sign separate deals with the workforce for even more 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 cash payments or improved pension rights.  

Despite the allure of extra pay, many French are reluctant to give up the extra time they can spend with their families thanks to compensatory days.  

"Workers are very attached to their free time," said Murial Roque, 35, who works for the Pages Jaune (A-Z Listings) business information directory.   

"I find that the interests of women regarding social advances and raising children are not taken into account," she said at the demonstration in Paris.   But the government says that generous social benefits cannot be maintained with everyone working fewer hours.  

"In the long term, France can only pay for its social and economic ambitions by increasing the number of hours worked. At the moment working times here are lower than in all other members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)," the government said.  

France suffers from an unemployment rate of around 10 percent - almost double that of Britain - and Raffarin recently promised to bring it down to nine percent, a drop of some 250,000 job-seekers, in a year.  

The changes would not effect the public sector which employs nearly one in four French workers.


Subject: French News

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