France paying the price for 'historic error' of 35-hour week

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With its guarantee of lunch breaks, time for aperitifs before dinner and the chance to avoid the weekend Christmas shopping rush, the French 35-hour working week sounds too good to be true.

And, 10 years tomorrow after the reduced working week was brought into law by the Socialist government, it seems that maybe it is. France may have conquered l'art de vivre, with its work-life balance, but the country is still footing the bill for the reduction in working hours that Lionel Jospin called an "economic error" and President Nicolas Sarkozy judges to be a "historic error".

Labour Minister Xavier Darcos said: "This reform did not create jobs, but it has brought its fair share of perversity and generated stress for employees who must do their work in 35 hours when before they had 39," he told the right-wing daily Le Figaro. "It was not adapted to international competition and created an archaic society. We end up with unbearable stress for all."

Financially, France is still paying the price for its love of leisure. And it's a steep bill to foot : some €15bn (£13.5bn) per year since 2002, as employer's tax was reduced to help businesses offset the increase in hourly labour costs of almost 10 per cent. Internationally, it means that France struggles to compete with other countries. According to the research institute WCC-Rexecode, France's loss of more than three percentage points of market share in the eurozone is largely due to the reduced working week, which handicaps France against its competitors. Laurence Parisot, head of the French Institute of Public Opinion, said: "We still have the right to play in the global economic competition, but more in the first division."

And while the reduction in working hours from 39 per week to 35 was introduced in the hope of creating jobs for the French workforce, it has been a resounding failure. WCC-Rexecode estimated that the 350,000 jobs created between 1997 and 2002 were due to economic growth and could not be credited to the reduction in working time. Michel Didier, director of WCC-Rexecode said that while the economy expanded the job market grew. But he added: "There was no further enrichment of the growth in jobs explained by the reduction of working time."

The average full-time week in companies with more than 10 employees now stands at 35.6 hours. Only 10 per cent of employees work over 38 hours per week. So the average French person will work 1,542 hours per year, 250 hours less than in the US and 111 hours less than the UK.

Last year, the ruling conservative UMP party changed the law to make it possible for employers to demand longer hours of their staff and President Nicolas Sarkozy first started to weaken the 35-hour law in 2007, when he made overtime more profitable to both companies and employees by reducing tax on extra hours. But after a decade of working civilised hours, many French workers who have kept their jobs during a financial crisis that has seen unemployment rise to almost 10 per cent would not be happy to revert to a longer working week.

Frédéric Garet, a graphic designer working in the second arrondissement of Paris, said: "The 35-hour working week is logical, it means we have lots of free time. We get home earlier and this means there is less pressure on our lives. When I hear tales of British workers eating their lunches at their desks and working all hours, I think it must be very bad for their health. People should not live with this level of stress."