French grousing over shorter hours
By Peter Humi
CNN Paris Bureau Chief
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
Truckers blocking roadways in Tourcoing on Tuesday to protest the 35-hour work week
PARIS (CNN) -- It's a particularly French irony, for a people who work to live instead of living to work.
The Socialist-led government that swept to power in a surprise 1997 parliamentary election finally introduced its long-promised 35-hour workweek on Tuesday. It had been one of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's electoral platforms.
A shorter workweek would surely make everyone happy, right?
"Shorter hours? Great! But not if it means less pay," was the general reaction among workers, whose workweek had been defined at 39 hours.
The new 35-hour law doesn't dictate what people in the private sector are paid. But workers fear it could mean wage cuts.
Francois-Ferdinand Cochin, right, talks with a worker at his company
That's especially true in the public sector, which employs more than 20 percent of the French work force. Public transport in Paris was reduced significantly Tuesday as bus drivers, Metro subway workers and train staff walked off their jobs for 24 hours to protest proposed changes in pay and conditions as a result of the 35-hour week.
Hospital workers and post office employees have been protesting for several weeks, too. And this week, truck drivers blocked highways and border crossings with their vehicles.
For their part, private businesses and especially their management generally thought the idea of a 35-hour week "absurd," "impractical" and, as the president of Peugeot-Citroen put it this week, "a heavy handicap for all businesses."
Why introduce and pass such legislation, if it appears to be making so many employers and employees grumble?
The government says a shorter workweek means companies and the public sector will need to hire extra workers to make up for the shortfall.
With an unemployment rate of more than 13 percent when the Socialists took office in 1997, reducing the number of people out of work was the government's stated priority. Since then, unemployment has fallen to about 11 percent.
The government has been quick to take credit for the decline and has pointed to its 35-hour week, which some companies have already adjusted to in recent months, as at least partly responsible for the drop in joblessness.
Workers at A.D.S. in Val d'Oise, outside Paris
This week, we visited the Val d'Oise, an area about half an hour's drive from Paris with some 2,000 small- and medium-sized companies.
Fewer than 10 of those had formulated a revised work plan or schedule to take the new law into account, according to Francois-Ferdinand Cochin, president of a company called A.D.S.
A.D.S. certainly hasn't yet, said Cochin, whose company makes machines used in the manufacture of plastic bottles and containers. Coca-Cola is among its clients.
"We employ 50 people here," says Cochin. "Each of them does a different job. How can we conform to the 35-hour week with such a diverse range?"
Most of its employees average 39 hours per week, while the junior management and after-sales teams often work more. Some staff frequently travels abroad to maintain machinery as far away as Australia; a plane trip to Sydney from Paris is 25 hours.
"We can't tell our clients, 'Sorry, we can't help' if we stick to 35 hours," says Cochin.
But "the law's the law," as they say, and A.D.S. expects to reach a compromise agreement by September on the shorter workweek. Cochin foresees paying more overtime rather than making additional hires.
Another possible solution is for the company to give employees more vacation time instead of reducing weekly hours.
But the new rule is going to affect the bottom line, Cochin says, predicting that profits will fall.
Key is 'flexibility'
The key for everyone on the 35-hour week, according to the Ministry of Work and Employment, is "flexibility."
Companies will not be forced to take measures that are "suicidal" and will be given time to adapt, officials have said. Hence there is no talk of fines or other punishment for the 85 percent or so of businesses that have yet to put the 35-hour law into place.
The Socialists, in proposing and even implementing the 35-hour workweek, have not provided a lot of how-to specifics. It appears those will now be worked out through trial and error -- company by company, sector by sector, worker by worker.
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