Jospin keeps his election promise and reduces the working week

 

The debate in the French National Assembly took two weeks; one session lasted until 5 a.m. Having weathered 1,660 proposed amendments and the fierce, if disorganised, opposition of the right-wing opposition, Employment Minister Martine Aubry's draft law on the 35-hour working week was accepted by the French parliament yesterday, by 316 votes to 254.

The law will be forwarded to the Senate in early March, but it is extremely unlikely it can be reversed now. From January 1st, 2000, all companies with more than 20 employees will be required to reduce working hours from the present 39-hour maximum to 35 hours per week. For each hour beyond 35, employees will receive 25 per cent extra in overtime pay. The law will extend to companies with fewer than 20 employees by 2002.

The 35-hour week was one of the Left's main promises during last year's general election campaign, and the Prime Minister, Mr Lionel Jospin, has kept his word. Despite the often acrimonious debate - "a gas factory" in the words of the Gaullist leader, Mr Philippe Seguin - the main provisions of the law remain unchanged from the text proposed by Mrs Aubry on January 27th.

Although communists and ecologists objected to concessions to business management, the ruling left-wing coalition managed to remain unified through the debate.

The rationale for the new law is that by reducing working hours, more jobs will be created. Yet its merits as an anti-unemployment measure are far from proven. Economists' estimates of the number of new jobs that will be created range from 200,000 to 700,000 - not enough to significantly lower France's 12.4 per cent jobless rate.

So many important issues remain unresolved - the minimum wage, part-time employment, overtime and sanctions against violators - that the measure is unlikely to be seen as a great French social victory in the tradition of the 40hour week, paid vacations or retirement at age 60.

Mr Jospin's Socialist Party platform had promised that all employees would continue to receive the same pay for 35 hours as they did for 39 hours - a measure vigorously opposed by management, who say they simply cannot afford it. Mrs Aubry's law says only that minimum age earners will continue to receive the monthly "SMIC" - now Ffr 6,663 (£793) - even though they will work four hours less per week. Whether this will be the case of other employees will be decided by a second law, to be drawn up in 1999.

Article 4 of the draft law allows employees to accumulate their four news hours of free time each week towards their holidays.

This provision for "annualisation" angered left-wing trade unions but pleased business management. Reductions in welfare taxes paid by companies on behalf of employees are another incentive offered to businesses that comply with the law.

French employees already enjoy a minimum of five weeks paid holidays per year; if they continue to work 39 hours per week under the new system, French workers will now receive ten weeks of paid holidays.

The biggest question posed by the new law is whether France can compete internationally when French people already enjoy one of the shortest working lives in the developed world. The French Ministry of the Economy and Finance estimates that the average Frenchman works 49,507 hours in his life, the average German 51,642 hours. An Englishman works 56,918 hours, an American 61,343 hours and a Japanese 71,123 hours. Although working hours are decreasing throughout the industrialised world, no other country has reduced work-time as dramatically as France, or by law.

Speaking four days after the assassination of Claude Erignac, France's representative in Corsica, Mr Jospin called yesterday on all Corsicans to stand against violence and for law and order.