Raffarin overhauls 35-hour week to boost jobs

9th December 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 9 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Thursday announced a major relaxation of the controversial 35-hour working week, the key socialist reform that has come under attack for helping create the country's stubbornly high unemployment.

PARIS, Dec 9 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Thursday announced a major relaxation of the controversial 35-hour working week, the key socialist reform that has come under attack for helping create the country's stubbornly high unemployment.

At a televised news conference in Paris, Raffarin unveiled a government action plan dubbed "Contract France 2005", whose main provision is to make it easier for staff and companies to get round the last left-wing administration's compulsory cut in working hours.

Introduced in 1998 by then prime minister Lionel Jospin, the law is blamed by the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of President Jacques Chirac for forcing up the cost of labour, while many French workers are frustrated by their inability to earn more by working longer hours.

Under Raffarin's proposals, which he said will be put into law early next year, the number of overtime hours employees can work per year will be increased from 180 to 220. In addition businesses will be able to strike 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.

Chirac has indicated that he is reluctant to repeal completely the 35-hour law, which he has said is now an "acquis" or an acquired right, but Raffarin's initiative appeared aimed at voiding the regulation of as much substance as possible.

"It will be a new situation for working times in our country," Raffarin said at the press conference.

After an earlier modification of the 35-hour law in 2002, the changes announced Thursday are intended to "finalise the reform," according to the text of "Contract France 2005".

"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)," it said.

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

The head of the business federation Medef, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, praised Raffarin for his initiative.

"The government has decided to take on the French exception which is the 35-hour week .... Now it will be possible to work more in order to earn more. Workers and companies will benefit alike. It will mean greater buying power, more employment and more growth," he said.

But unions reacted with fury to the changes. The political left believes the law helps tackle unemployment by sharing out jobs among more people.

"It is the end of the 35-hour law. It continues to exist as a virtual entity, but these measures will completely circumvent it. Flexibility of working times is being taken to outrageous excess. It is scandalous," said Mourad Rabhi of the hardline CGT union.

The 56-year-old prime minister, who was appointed after Chirac's 2002 re-election and has defied persistent speculation of his imminent dismissal, has seen his authority boosted since the departure from government 10 days ago of the powerful finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy left to become head of the UMP, from where he is expected to launch a bid for the presidency in 2007.

Among other employment-promoting measures announced in Raffarin's "Contract France 2005" were increased help to small businesses, tax incentives for taking on domestic help and simplifications of the labour law. In addition worker stock-option schemes are to be encouraged.

The action plan also contains measures for improving the access of France's large Arab minority to higher education and job training.

© AFP

Subject: French News

0 Comments To This Article