NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Unemployment and the 35-Hour Work Week

October 8, 2003

France reduced its maximum work time to 39 hours per week in 1982 and 35 hours in 1998. Of course, the socialist government mandated that workers receive the same weekly wages. Government inspectors were sent around to businesses to make sure that employees left for home after putting in their 35 hours. The action was taken to increase jobs, explains Bruce Bartlett.

France has long had an unemployment rate far higher than the United States. It is now 9.6 percent there versus 6.1 percent here. The socialists figured that there was only so much work to do, so if people were only allowed to work 35 hours per week, rather that 40 hours, then 8 workers would be needed to do the work that 7 workers did previously.

Shortly after the work restriction took effect, there were strikes by workers throughout France:

  • One reason is that their employers told them that no pay raises would be forthcoming due to the cost of the new program.
  • Others protested that employers worked them harder or purchased labor-saving machinery to raise productivity and compensate for the higher cost of labor.
  • Lately, polls have shown that a large majority of French workers want an end to or significant reform of the 35-hour week.

French government officials are also complaining that the workweek restrictions raised government spending, partly to bail-out businesses that would have gone bankrupt without subsidies due to the higher labor costs, and because government workers were also subject to the new requirements. They also say that the work restriction has reduced economic growth in France, thus contributing to a budget deficit higher than allowed under European Union rules.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, "Unemployment And The 35-Hour Work Week," National Center for Policy Analysis, October 8, 2003.


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