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France: Move to dismantle 35-hour week

November 19, 2011
Saturday, August 2, 2008 – 10:00
By Tim Dobson

New laws were passed through the French Senate on July 23, which will see the virtual dismantling of the law that limits the working week for employees to 35 hours, which was introduced by the Socialist Party (SP) government in 1998.

The new laws, which are expected to take effect in August, formally leaves the 35-hour working week in place but allows companies to side-step the laws. Companies will be able to negotiate individually on overtime agreements with their workers, rather than on an industry-wide scale.

Workers who are paid by the hour can now be made to work up to 48 hours a week. For workers who are paid daily, the maximum amount of days they can be asked to work has risen from 218 to 235.

The new laws will also see the lowering of overtime pay rates. As it currently stands, the first four hours of overtime is to be paid at a rate of an additional 10% per hour, while all further work has a rate of an additional 25% per hour. New legislation would result in all overtime being paid at the 10% rate.

Compensatory vacation days are also to be scrapped, according to a July 25 Scotsman article, which reported that, “Under the old rules, employees who worked overtime were able to exchange the extra hours worked for days off”. This will no longer be the case.

French labour minister Xavier Bertrand made the intention of the laws quite clear, stating “We’re finally getting away from the 35 hours”. The dismantling of the 35-hour week was a key reform promised by French President Nicholas Sarkozy before his election in April last year. Sarkozy has described it as an “economic catastrophe”.

However, due to mass mobilisations against other anti-worker reforms pushed by Sarkozy since his election, he was forced to back down. On May 27, in an interview on the French radio station RTL, Sarkozy stated, “There will always be a fixed working week and it will be 35 hours”.

The 35-hour workweek remains incredibly popular, the French financial daily Les Echos found that 79% of workers supported the 35-hour week. On the other hand, Sarkozy remains deeply unpopular. A recent poll found that 61% disapprove of his presidency.

The SP and the Greens, as well as the French Communist Party, have opposed the new laws in parliament. Jean-Louis Bianco, an SP deputy in the National Assembly stated, “This is an ideologically driven project”.

Thousands protested outside of the Senate as the laws were passed. Workers were joined by business executives and managers dressed in black suits in condemning the laws. This follows on from a nationwide stoppage in June in support of the 35-hour week, which according to the General Confederation of Labour, involved over 700,000 workers.

The effective scrapping of the 35-hour week, was, however, just one of many anti-worker laws passed through the Senate. There were also attacks on the right of teachers to strike — laws were passed that would require schools to remain open and to organise supervision of students if more than 25% of teachers are on strike.

New laws also passed, would now mean anyone who refused two “reasonable job offers” will no longer receive unemployment payments. After six months of unemployment, a “reasonable job offer” is any job offered within a one-hour travel distance of a worker’s residence that pays more than the unemployment benefits they receive.

From GLW issue 761

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