clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

French look at cutting work hours

If French workers worked less, would there be more jobs for the jobless? That is the question facing French leaders as they prepare for a highly charged summit on jobs and wages Friday.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, his Cabinet, unions and employers' federations have given themselves a day to reach a common position on an issue that is the subject of one accord and many disputes.Everyone agrees that unemployment is France's most urgent problem. With 3,132,600 people seeking work - 576,000 of them under the age of 25 - it was at the center of this year's parliamentary election campaign and continues to dominate political debate.

The center-right's campaign platform pledged to limit public spending and reduce taxes that eat up 45.1 percent of people's earnings - one of the highest rates in Europe. That would stimulate personal initiative and create jobs, it said.

The victorious left argued that job creation required shortening the work week. Now, the Socialist premier must deliver it. On Friday Jospin must attempt to persuade, cajole or browbeat his partners into a consensus on how best to achieve it.

Left-wing unions want a law that shortens the work week from 39 hours to 35 while maintaining wages at current levels and leaving working patterns unchanged.

The employers' federation argues that such a move would increase production costs, limiting the sales of French products and so adding to unemployment. "I'm in the position of someone who is being asked to swallow a potion that I know will kill me," said the federation's president, Jean Gandois.

Between these seemingly irreconcilable stances, some economists believe there's a third way. They note the rhythm of work has been modified over the past decade as heavy industry has given way to the service sector. The traditional French work day - starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 5 p.m., with a two-hour lunch - is becoming rare, and that creates opportunities, these economists say.

By assessing hours on an annual basis rather than a weekly one, there's scope for job creation through a cut in working time, they claim. Hewlett-Packard's factory near Grenoble in southeast France is cited as a case in point.

The factory was unable to produce computers fast enough in periods of high demand but had to pay its workers to do nothing at other times. So in 1995, the management proposed new contracts under which workers could be asked to be present between 25 and 46 hours a week depending on requirements, rather than 38 hours every week as before. In return, average working time, calculated on a yearly basis, was reduced to 35 hours without loss of salary.