French executives will be forced to work fewer hours

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FRENCH BUSINESS executives will be forced to work less under a new law to be proposed by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government later this year.

Middle-rank executives - but not company heads - are to be brought within the rules of the 35-hour week, which is already being applied to blue- collar workers and civil servants. Business employees will be permitted to work a certain number of overtime hours, beyond the weekly average of 35. But this this will be taxed at a punitive level - initially 10 per cent and then 25 per cent above the normal rate of income tax.

The intention - as in the first stage of the 35-hour-week experiment, introduced a year ago - is to create jobs by forcing those who have employment to work less. The concept has been bitterly resisted by French employers but - against expectations - middle-ranking executives have insisted that the rules must also apply to them.

To make the system as flexible as possible, the reduced hours will probably be granted in the form of extra holidays.

The announcement, by the Employment minister, Martine Aubry, coincided with the conviction of a senior businessman, Bernard Roquemont, for encouraging executives at Thomson-RCM, a military electronics firm, to break the rules of the existing 39-hour week. In 1997, its white collar employees put in an estimated 45,000 hours of "secret" work - equivalent to another 25 jobs.

In the first case of its kind in France, Mr Roquemont was prosecuted under a law originally aimed at sweat-shops employing illegal immigrants.

Of all the policies pushed by Mr Jospin's centre-left coalition, the 35-hour week is the one which distinguishes Jospinism from other brands of remodelled centre-leftism (Clintonism, Schroderism and Blair- ism). It is also the policy which will make or break the career of its main sponsor, Ms Aubry (the daughter of former European commission head Jacques Delors).

Twelve months after the introduction of the first, voluntary, phase of the reform, the results have been confusing and perverse. Despite their protests, companies have used negotiations on the 35-hour week to win union concessions, relaxing rigid working practices. In the creation of jobs - the effects have been minimal. Even on the most optimistic reading of the figures, no more than 60,000 will have been created by 31 December. Ms Aubry had spoken of generating up to 600,000. Even after the law becomes compulsory, a more realistic target would be 100,000, her department unofficially estimates.