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The French work less than the British and Germans, but an attack on 35-hour working week has split left and angered traditionalists

The Economy Minister’s attack on the shibboleth of the 35-hour week has divided the ruling Parti Socialiste, with traditionalists booing what they see as an anti-democratic, pro-market elite

John Lichfield
Sunday 30 August 2015 19:00 BST
The Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron speaking at the French employers’ association Medef. He claimed he was referring to labour practices in general, not just working hours
The Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron speaking at the French employers’ association Medef. He claimed he was referring to labour practices in general, not just working hours (AFP/Getty)

A dispute over attempts to reform French working practices and bring them into line with those of other European countries has led to the country’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, being booed by young members of his own party.

He now faces deep splits within France’s ruling Socialist Party over the role of the Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron, after he defied French left-wing dogma last week by appearing to mock the country’s cherished 35-hour working week.

Mr Macron, 37, an unelected former banker, was forced to retract suggestions that he wanted to abolish the 35-hour week, first introduced by a Socialist government 15 years ago. In doing so, however, he fanned the flames further by declaring bluntly: “France now works less hard than Germany, less than Britain and even less than Italy.” Work, he said, should be a “central value of the left” – not a “taboo subject”.

Fury at Mr Macron spilled into the open at the “summer university” of the Parti Socialiste in La Rochelle at the weekend – equivalent to an informal party conference – where Mr Valls was booed by members of the “Jeunes Socialistes” during an official dinner.

It leaves the centre-left party led by President Francois Hollande split into warring camps of “reformists” and “traditionalists”, mirroring the divisions in the Labour Party in Britain revealed by next month’s election for party leader.

The French left, is, however, 18 years behind the curve of events in Britain. As Labour moves to abandon Blairism, the Socialist-led French government is shifting towards a market-friendly social democracy, reminiscent in some respects of New Labour.

Much of the grass roots of the party, and a powerful section of MPs, remain attached to a more traditional approach which favours state intervention and rejects fiscal austerity.

Staying Seine: French people actually work more hours per year than Germans – but fewer than Britons (AFP/Getty)

Fury within the party at Mr Valls’s and Mr Macron’s business-friendly approach goes beyond the hard-line young socialist movement. The Economy Minister was not invited to attend the La Rochelle conference – officially because he is not a Socialist party member, actually to avoid confrontation with party rebels.

Mr Macron was once an economic adviser to President Hollande and then briefly a merchant banker. He has never stood for political office. To many in the Socialist Party, he represents a faceless, anti-democratic “elite”, obsessed with pro-market-dogma. To some French commentators, including those on the right, he is the courageous reformer that France needs.

Mr Macron spoke last Thursday to another “summer university” – that of the French employers’ federation, Medef. He received prolonged applause for a speech in which he said that the market-opening reforms pursued by the Hollande-Valls government in the last 20 months were only the beginning.

At one point, he appeared to criticise – even to mock – the argument of many French Socialists and French trade unions that jobs can be created by spreading work around. “Once upon a time, the left believed that France could be better-off if it worked less. All of that is behind us now,” Mr Macron said.

In 1998-2000, a previous Socialist government reduced the standard working week in France from 39 hours to 35 hours. It is claimed by some Socialists that the measure created 350,000 jobs.

This figure is disputed by many economists. In any case, 15 years later, unemployment in France remains stuck at around 10 per cent, much higher than in Britain or Germany.

Mr Macron’s comments to the bosses’ conference raised a storm on the left. He was ticked off by his Prime Minister Mr Valls for uttering “petites phrases” – “making little digs” – which did not help the government’s cause.

Mr Valls said that the government had no plans to abolish the 35-hour week, although he has himself criticised the law in the past.

In an interview with the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Mr Macron once again accused his critics of taking his comment out of context. He was talking, he said, about work patterns as a whole.

“France now works less hard than Germany, less than Britain and even less than Italy. I am not blaming the [35 hours law] but talking about work should not be a taboo, especially on the left,” he said.

Mr Macron is wrong to say that Germany works harder than France. He is right about Britain and Italy. According to the 2014 statistics produced by the international economic watchdog the OECD, French people work an average of 1,475 hours in a year. The Germans work 1,371 hours, Britons 1,677 hours and Italians 1,774 hours.

As with many political debates in France, it is difficult to separate myth from reality. Although the official standard working week in France remains 35 hours, a series of reforms during the Chirac-Sarkozy years means that the average “real” working week in France is now just over 39 hours (the same as in 2000).

The 35-hour law remains however an untouchable political totem for much of the French left. It is also very popular with many white-collar workers who vote for the right. As a result, successive centre-right governments have never dared to abolish the law.

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