Jospin works towards shorter hours as employers fear for the economy

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The Independent Online
The French government has decided, in principle, that the working week should be reduced from 39 to 35 hours by 2000. The intention is, nominally, to create jobs. But, as John Lichfield reports from Paris, employers fear that France is about to score another economic own goal.

Even the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, is said to have had serious second, and third, thoughts about his own bright idea. But, as the man who promised to keep all his promises, there is a limit to how many election pledges he can break or postpone.

A 35-hour working week, with a strong hint that there would be no loss of pay, was one of the best remembered promises made by the Socialists in the general election last May.

The boast was that this would create new jobs and reduce France's stubborn and record level of unemployment (12.5 per cent). Mr Jospin's own economics minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has since described the idea as "economic suicide". But the left and green wings of Mr Jospin's coalition, and the unions, have made it clear that there could be no U-turn on this of all policies: not a complete U-turn at any rate.

At the end of a one-day conference on employment last Friday, attended by unions, employers and the government, the Prime Minister produced a Jospinesque solution to a Jospinesque problem.

A statutory 35-hour week by 2000 would be the "direction" laid down by a new law to go before parliament by the end of the year. For the first 18 months or so, it would be up to employers and unions to negotiate how best to achieve this goal. If economic conditions permitted in 1999, there would be a firmer law, which would lay down a 35-hour week for larger companies by 2000 and for all workers by 2002.

Employers who moved rapidly to a 35-hour week, and created new jobs, would be given subsidies by the state (in effect a recognition that the policy is anti-competitive). Would there be any loss of pay for workers? That would be up for negotiation in the short term. The longer term was left, creatively, unclear.

On the surface, this was a substantial concession to the bosses and a rebuff for the more absolutist union chiefs. But it was the employers who came out of the meeting screaming rape and murder and threatening "war". The unions, even the Communist union federation, who had secretly feared that they would be given much less, were relieved.

The complex formula devised by Mr Jospin, and his deputy, the employment minister, Martine Aubry, leaves - in theory - everything to play for. But the employers fear that the decisions are, in effect, made. A 35-hour week will be imposed on them in the end. In the meantime, Mr Jospin's convolutions will make their life even harder.

Bernard Boisson, vice-president of the social committee of the employers' federation, said: "It's entirely unreasonable. It's a purely technocratic, political, even ideological decision, which has no connection with reality ... It's an own goal, which will help our competitors."

Significantly, perhaps, even Mr Jospin did not defend the policy as a job creation scheme alone. He said a 35-hour week would also improve the quality of life in France. "We need time to live," he said, at the end of Friday's conference. "I am thinking principally of women for whom balancing a career and family life presents especial problems."

In this respect, Mr Jospin is in tune with his nation. Nearly two-thirds of French people approve of the idea of a shorter working week, according to a poll published in the Journal de Dimanche yesterday. But a clear majority feel it will do nothing to reduce unemployment.

The last experience with a statutory cut in working hours in the 1980s suggests that they are right. Some economists argue that, on balance, it reduced French competitiveness, increased inflexibility and cost the country jobs.

Mr Jospin, according to reports in the French press, admits privately that cuts in working hours and job creation do not go together. He is putting all his hopes for a reduction in unemployment on the signs of a rapid uptake in the growth of the French economy in the second half of this year.

Ms Aubry, his deputy, is more ideological on this point. She is convinced that industrialised countries can no longer rely on strong growth to provide new jobs. She believes that France is leading the way to a 21st century in which, to avoid social conflict, all developed countries will have to share the work around.

The French employers retort that this may be so, but, in the meantime, France is in merciless competition with the rest of the world. It may make sense for individual companies to negotiate shorter working weeks and job-sharing (which is already happening). But the imposition of a blanket state policy on all could be suicidal.