Paris stands by 35-hour week reform

6th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 6 (AFP) - France's centre-right government on Sunday stood defiantly by plans to make the 35-hour work week more flexible with the controversial prospect of longer hours, despite mass weekend protests.

PARIS, Feb 6 (AFP) - France's centre-right government on Sunday stood defiantly by plans to make the 35-hour work week more flexible with the controversial prospect of longer hours, despite mass weekend protests.

More than half a million people marched through 100 towns and cities on Saturday, according to the organisers - an alliance of trade unions backed by the opposition Socialist Party. Police put the overall figure at 285,000.

A bill that would enable private sector employees to opt for longer hours was expected to pass its first reading when it goes before the National Assembly Monday.

In an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien, government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope insisted the plan to review the 35-hour week, which came into force in 2000, would "increase the ability of workers to make their own choices."

"Why does the Left want to prevent this? Is it out of nostalgia or ideology?" he asked.

Cope dismissed the marches as an opposition ploy to foment public discontent, saying "it was no secret that the demonstrators included a large number of Socialist activists."

The government, he said, would "continue to explain, to engage in dialogue, to listen - and also to fight demagoguery."

Raffarin was scheduled to appear on France Inter radio station Monday to explain his government was ready to listen and engage in dialogue, but nevertheless intended to stick to its policies.

Jousting between left and right over the length of the working week was set to continue Monday in parliament, the National Assembly, with a bill expected to be adopted by Tuesday in a first reading.

"The prime minister must listen, and either withdraw or amend the reform bill," said Francois Chereque, secretary general of the CFDT, one of the country's most powerful unions.

The mandatory 35-hour week, the key social change of the last Socialist administration, has come under attack by President Jacques Chirac's centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UPM) for raising labour costs and exacerbating unemployment, which stands at around 10 percent.

The Left is accusing the government of trying to turn back the clock and hinder social progress because of an alleged ideological obsession with labour market flexibility.

Polls showed that nearly 70 percent of the public support or have sympathy with the protests.

US-French relations were also set to feature prominently this week with a visit Tuesday by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Relations suffered badly over France's rejection of the US invasion of Iraq.

Rice has chosen Paris as her venue for a major speech on US-European relations. She was also due to be received Tuesday by French President Jacques Chirac.

A further controversial item on the French political agenda this week is a French referendum on the European Union constitution set for June.

French opponents of the constitution scored major points last Thursday when the national committee of the leading labour union confederation, the CGT, voted massively against it.

"It will be a tough campaign," said government spokesman Cope Sunday, "By definition the stakes are not fixed in advance, far from it."

According to a latest opinion poll, 46 percent of the French do not yet know how they will cast their vote in the referendum.

Only 25 percent said they would vote for the constitution, while 20 percent were against, according to results published Sunday of a poll by IFOP/Journal du Dimanche.

Meanwhile Chirac's big political rival within his own party, the UMP, party secretary-general Nicolas Sarkozy, was set to visit Ukraine on Wednesday and Thursday at the invitation of its new President Viktor Yushchenko.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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