France irons out plans to shorten its workweek

With the US unemployment rate at its lowest level in 30 years - 4.2 percent - it's easy for Americans to forget that jobs don't always come easy.

Across the Atlantic, however, jobless rates stretch into the double digits. And every European country has taken its own approach to turn the situation around.

But only France is trying to legislate its unemployment rate down.

By law, every French business employing more than 20 people will have to have introduced a 35-hour workweek by Jan. 1, 2000, cutting the existing week by four hours with no loss of pay for employees. Smaller companies will have an extra two years to make the change.

The idea behind the law, centerpiece of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government program, is that the labor pie can be shared out among more people if it is cut into smaller pieces.

Government officials say the plan will create or save nearly half a million jobs between now and 2003, cutting into the 11.2 percent unemployment rate.

This approach is clearly out of sync with the more pragmatic and market-oriented policies that Socialist governments have adopted in other European countries, such as Britain and Germany.

Indeed in Germany, the trend is quite the opposite of that in France: As employers there scramble to stay competitive in world markets, workers are finding their workweeks being stretched with no corresponding pay increases.

French businessmen have complained bitterly about the law, saying that it will hit their profitability and deny them the money they need to invest in their companies for growth, which is the only job-creation scheme that works. They have not been won over by the $7.7 billion that the government will be handing out in subsidies for jobs that they create, mainly because much of that money will come from new taxes on business.

But implementing the law, in factory-by-factory or sector-by-sector negotiations, has in fact brought employers some benefits.

For a start, 75 percent of the deals reached so far have involved a wage freeze, or cuts in planned wage hikes. But more important, employers have often been able to impose flexible working hours as part of their agreements with trade unions, a goal they have long been denied by earlier labor legislation.

It's unclear how many jobs will actually be created by the scheme. The government is scaling back its original expectations because it has made a concession to business, and agreed to postpone heavy taxes on overtime work for another year. That means that many employers will simply ask their current staff to keep working 39 hours a week, rather than hire new staff.

Not surprisingly, 85 percent of the employees who have already moved to a 35-hour week say it is a good thing, according to a recent poll that found most of them happiest with the extra time it gave them for family life.

But for executives and other senior office staff, the new law seems likely to be honored more in the breach than in the observance. Already most of them work well over the standard 39-hour week. Just 10 percent put in normal hours according to the government's labor inspection unit, and only rarely are executives paid overtime or given compensatory time off.

Nor is there much the authorities can do about it. The CEO of Thomson-CSM, a high-tech arms manufacturer, was fined $14,000 in June for making his staff work after hours for no extra pay, but the case was a drop in the ocean.

Still, a growing number of French executives say they are tired of sacrificing their personal and family lives at the altar of the workplace, and are demanding a return to old fashioned time keeping. Many offices have installed time clocks even for the senior staff, who see them not as a tyranny but as liberation.

For beyond all the arguments about efficiency, modernization, and remaining competitive, the French persist in their obstinate belief that there are more important things in life than work.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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