Bill spells end to France's 35-hour working week

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The Independent Online

French lawmakers have effectively dismantled the country's 35-hour working week by voting to allow employers to increase working hours.

French lawmakers have effectively dismantled the country's 35-hour working week by voting to allow employers to increase working hours.

In a final vote, the National Assembly approved a government-backed bill yesterday permitting employers to negotiate deals with staff to increase working time by 220 hours a year in return for better pay.

The bill clears the way for the gradual erosion of the 35-hour week, a flagship policy of the former Socialist-led government that gave many people more time off but added to concerns about France's declining global competitiveness.

The shorter working week was introduced on a voluntary basis in 1998 and made compulsory two years later in an effort to force employers to hire more people. But France's current 10 per cent jobless rate is testament to its failure to generate the promised millions of new jobs.

The National Assembly, controlled by President Jacques Chirac's conservatives, approved the new law by 350 votes to 135. It does not formally abolish the 35-hour working week but sidesteps it, allowing employers to offer staff extra working hours at a higher rate of pay.

It also enables workers to sell part of their holiday entitlement back to their employers, or to put it towards training or early retirement.

In order to apply the changes, however, companies will have to break away from their broad sector-wide agreements with unions - unchanged by the new law - and negotiate deals with their own staff representatives. This means that the effects of the reform will take time to make themselves felt.

Any such initiatives could be unpopular in France's present climate. Almost a million people took part in nationwide strikes and demonstrations earlier this month to protest at the change to working time, as well as at other threats to workers' benefits and public-sector pay.

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