When France's new Socialist government decreed a 39-hour workweek last month, it was supposed to be a first step in implementing a whole new system of work and revenue sharing.
The ambitious goal: the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
Instead, the government decree infuriated both management and the unions, who responded with a wave of strikes. The strikes did not cause that much disruption in the end. Only one caused a stink - literally, that is. After striking workers occupied a Camembert factory in Normandy, the boss called in a 200-man private army armed with tear gas to liberate his fast-ripening cheese.
Now doubts have been raised about how far the Socialist government will be able to go in addressing its top priority - reducing unemployment.
The government sees the shorter workweek as a key component of its goal. It plans to spread out work to more workers through a series of steps that by 1985 will reduce the workweek to 35 hours.
But what wages are workers to be paid for more leisure time? Since the election, the government has insisted, as Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy said recently, that ''work sharing means revenue sharing.''
With the reduction in hours, Mauroy said, only workers at the lowest end of the pay scale could expect their purchasing power to keep up with inflation. A ''pause'' would be pressed on high-income workers.
This whole scheme of work and revenue sharing is symbolized by the oft-repeated Socialist call for ''solidarity.'' As a result, the government was put in the ironic position of siding with the bosses, who say such a pay cut is needed to keep French industry competitive. ''We already have high taxes and benefits,'' explained Bernard Giroux of Patronat, the employers' association.
But most French unions flatly dismiss this. Both the communist-dominated Confederation General du Travail and the pragmatic, less-political Force Ouvriere insist on 40 hours pay even if their members work less. Only the socialist Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail agrees to negotiate on the matter.
''We must defend our salaries,'' Force Ouvriere's chief, Andre Bergeron, told the Monitor. While Bergeron added that he understood that wages could not be increased without increased productivity, this conclusion led him not to agree with the Patronat, but only to criticize Socialist measures.
''There is nothing scandalous with 39 hours, but when we get to 35 hours there will be problems,'' he said. ''The government should be more practical and not program such a change - we are now prisoners of their affirmations.''
But the government has not stood behind its intentions. When the unions said no, it backed down.
A couple of days after Mr. Mauroy made his statement, President Mitterrand told the country that no worker need fear for his purchasing power. And then even Mr. Mauroy changed his tune, announcing that civil servants and public-sector workers will continue to be paid for a 40-hour week.
The turn-around undercut some ''solidarity'' contracts already signed with reduced compensation. It also undermined the Patronat's bargaining position. The employers' association maintains its position that wages must be reduced, but in recent weeks it has signed pacts in a score of industries preserving old pay levels.
At the end of last month, the Labor Ministry reported that contracts had been signed for 6 million of the nation's 11 million workers in the private sector, most at the old 40-hour wage level.
All this puts in doubt the Socialist experiment to fight unemployment. Neither bosses nor workers accept the vaunted slogan of ''solidarity'' - that those with jobs and good wages should help those with neither.
Few workers seem ready to take less pay for a little extra free time. As a result, the unions will not accept a cut in their member's living standards.
Mr. Bergeron advises the government to admit that its programs won't work. ''We must just accept more unemployment in the short run,'' he says.