French right demands end to universal 35-hour week

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The Independent Online

A French parliamentary report yesterday called for the scrapping of the shorter working week that was the centrepiece of the jobs policy of the former, Socialist-led, government.

A French parliamentary report yesterday called for the scrapping of the shorter working week that was the centrepiece of the jobs policy of the former, Socialist-led, government.

The proposals generated a storm of indignation on the left but also caused huge embarrassment for the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose mild attempts at economic and social reform were repudiated by French voters last month.

The report, commissioned by the centre-right majority in the national assembly last October, cast doubt on the official claim that the statutory reduction in working hours from 39 to 35 had created 350,000 jobs over three years. A committee of inquiry, which was dominated by right-wing deputies, also declared that the shorter working week - claimed as an instrument of social justice - had widened social inequalities.

The 35-hour week had awarded more leisure time to the white-collar middle classes, who could afford to enjoy themselves on their extra days off, the report said, but by restricting overtime and holding down wages it had reduced the earnings of blue-collar workers, who then found themselves burdened with spare time they did not have the money to enjoy.

The committee, chaired by a centre-right deputy, Hervé Novelli, called for the mandatory 35-hour week to be abandoned in favour of negotiations, industry by industry, to allow employers and unions to fix working hours for each sector.

The report also drew attention to EU figures showing that France now has the smallest proportion of the population in work of any developed country and the second-shortest working hours in Europe. The struggling French economy would not recover until the country recovered its taste for work, the committee said.

The findings were immediately repudiated by the Raffarin government, which already claims to have "softened" the 35-hour week. There was no prospect of any of the report's proposals being implemented, the Prime Minister's office said.

From the government's point of view the timing of the report could not have been worse. Government candidates were massacred in last month's regional elections after the centre-left portrayed M. Raffarin's relatively modest attempts to rescue state pensions and health policies from bankruptcy as a menacing form of Thatcherism à la Française.

Since then, the large centre-right majority in the national assembly has been divided between those who want to slow the changes and those who believe the government should crash ahead with a tougher range of market-opening reforms.

The report on the 35-hour week has caused bitter argument within the government's ranks. The president of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debré, accused M. Novelli of being a "liberal fundamentalist".

In truth, the committee's report echoes many of the complaints made by blue-collar workers and disgruntled left-wing voters during the 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections. Dissatisfaction with the 35-hour week among factory workers was identified as one of the reasons why the left-wing voted melted away.

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