Kafkaesque world of a French social experiment

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FRANCE IS in the midst of a great social experiment - the mandatory reduction of working hours - which may or may not point the way forward for all industrialised societies in the 21st century.

The concept is simple: if we all work less, there will be more jobs for all. The implications are kafkaesque. How do you reduce a train ticket inspector's weekly hours to 35 when he officially works 39 but actually only works 25? How do you enforce such a law at a time of increasing global competition, without handicapping business and, in the long term, losing jobs?

Of all the policies pushed by Lionel Jospin's centre-left coalition government, the 35-hour week was the one which was to mark Jospinism from the other brands of remodelled centre- leftism now on offer (Clintonism, Blairism and Schroderism) It was also the policy which was to make or break the career of its main sponsor, the employment minister Martine Aubry (the daughter of Jacques Delors).

Eight months after the introduction of the first, voluntary, phase of the reform, the results have been confusing and perverse. In the area in which Ms Aubry hoped to have most impact - the creation of jobs - the effects have been minimal. Even on the most optimistic reading of the figures, 21,000 jobs have been created, with another 40,000 expected this year. Ms Aubry had spoken of generating 500,000, even 600,000 jobs. Even after the law is fully, and compulsorily applied, from the end of this year, her department now estimates unofficially that a more realistic target would be 100,000 to 200,000 jobs over three or four years.

(To put that in context, the 1997-8 French economic boom, now fading, created 300,000 jobs during last year alone.)

On the other hand, the law, detested and fiercely opposed by most French employers, has proved an unexpected benefit to those companies willing, and clever enough, to make use of the small print. The framework law allows companies to negotiate annual or monthly, rather than weekly, working patterns. It recommends that employees should not lose take-home pay or pay rises but gives no guarantees.

In practice, many of the 2,000 agreements negotiated so far have forced the employees to accept a pay freeze for up to three years. In return for working an average of four hours less each week, the employees have frequently accepted more flexible, monthly or annual, working patterns and the abolition of long-held privileges such as coffee and shower-breaks. In the legendarily frozen world of French working practices, this represents a considerable advance, for employers (ie not in the direction the government promised).

The reduced social charges offered to businesses to take on more workers in return for shorter working hours have been grabbed in four out of 10 cases by companies that cheerfully admit that they were planning to expand in any case. The cost of each job created so far is estimated at pounds 6,000; since the subsidies are payable, in reducing amounts, over five years, the final cost of each job will be around pounds 25,000. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development churlishly pointed out, it might have made more sense - and created more jobs - if the government had invested its cash in cutting business taxes for everyone.

A further can of worms - the wholesale application of the 35-hour week to the public sector - remains to be opened. A report last week showed that tens of thousands of railway workers, although nominally on a 39- hour week, work as little as 25 to 29 hours a week. An earlier report showed that many civil servants work only 31 to 34 hours a week. Public service unions are expecting the four hours reduction to apply, pro rata, to their members; they are also demanding the creation of new public sector jobs - the last thing the French economy needs.

Officials at the employment ministry insist that the great experiment will be a success, but it may take seven years before the full benefits are seen. The problem is that Ms Aubry does not have seven years. Her work will be judged in the presidential election, three years from now. As the French economy slows, the failure of the 35-hour week to generate large numbers of instant jobs will become even more apparent.

And yet, in one sense, the employment officials may be right. Employment experts say that the 35-hour law is transforming the French social landscape.

By breaking down entrenched and ossified patterns of labour, and by freezing salaries, it could help French business to become more competitive in the long run. This - at huge, short-term cost to the public purse - may be its great, and accidental, legacy.

Is the 35-hour Week a Winner?

The postal worker

Since October, Francoise Fournier, a 36-year-old mother of three, has been delivering the post for one day less each week and taking home the same pay. Every six weeks, she is guaranteed a three day weekend. "I see my children a bit more," she said. "I can organise trips with them, help them with their homework. It's one day less that I have to pay for a baby-sitter and the school canteen."

Four extra people have been hired to do the rounds from her postal depot at L'Isle-Adam in the Parisian suburbs. The complete reorganisation of work schedules, with more flexible working hours, means that customers are getting a better service than before, at minimal extra cost to La Poste. Everybody seems to win.

The bus driver

Michel is a 42-year-old bus driver in Poitiers. He, too, works a day less most weeks for the same pay but he is not a happy man "Before, I used to get a break half way through my shift and grab a sandwich or a coffee. Now a I have to drive seven hours in a row. By the end of the week, I can feel my concentration ebbing away." With the help of government subsidies, the Poitiers bus company has taken on a few extra drivers but not as many as the unions had hoped. Nobody seems to have won very much.