French still at odds over 35-hour week

 

THE 35-HOUR working week has returned to the top of France’s political agenda after a prominent socialist caused consternation by calling for the “unlocking” of the contentious law his own party introduced.

Manuel Valls, who is hoping to secure the Socialist Party’s nomination for the 2012 presidential election, has reignited debate over the 35-hour week by publicly distancing himself from one of the emblematic reforms of the last socialist government.

The mayor of Évry, a Paris suburb, drew a rebuke from his fellow socialists and provoked glee among several government ministers when he called for the “unlocking” of the 35-hour rule in order to allow French people “work more and work better” — a reworking of Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election slogan proposing that the French “work more to earn more”.

By breaking with party orthodoxy on one of the principal left-right cleavages in French politics, Mr Valls (49) — a self-styled maverick who is younger than his rivals for the socialist nomination — was seeking to burnish his reputation as a pragmatist unbound by party shibboleths.

The move also pointedly distanced him from a leading contender for the nomination, party leader Martine Aubry, who, as minister for labour in Lionel Jospin’s government in the late 1990s, was an architect of the 35-hour cap.

Socialist spokesman Benoît Hamon, considered a staunch left-winger, said his colleague’s remarks showed “poor political intuition”. Mr Hamon added that “cheek might suffice to be a candidate in the primaries, but it won’t suffice to be president of the Republic”. On the right, government spokesman François Baroin praised Mr Valls as an “enlightened socialist”.

The latest debate over the 35-hour week has as much to do with the 2012 election as with the ideological divisions it reveals. The socialists are due to hold a presidential primary later this year, while the ruling UMP is convinced public scepticism about the “Aubry laws” helped it win the presidency in 2007.

While the socialists say their reform led to the creation of 350,000 new jobs — the Jospin government oversaw the biggest drop in unemployment in 30 years — many senior party figures, including Ségolène Royal and Laurent Fabius, have called for it to be relaxed.

Meanwhile, labour minister Xavier Bertrand yesterday warned that, since many workers had got used to lucrative overtime, extending the legal working week would lead to an instant reduction in their pay packets. With 18 months to the election, it would take a brave party to try that.