NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Shorter Work Weeks Backfire on French Blue-Collar Workers

June 7, 2002

More than two years ago, France's Socialist government decided to micromanage the workplace by trimming four hours off the country's official work week. Now many factory workers, construction laborers and other hourly employees complain that they are working just as hard as before -- if not harder -- and are taking home less pay than they did under the old rules.

Moreover, hourly workers now have less control over when they can take vacations than their white-collar counterparts.

The law's main goal was to create jobs and the unemployment rate has fallen 3 percentage points -- but economists ascribe that to the strong economy and say the drop would have happened without the law.

  • In early 1996, the average French work week stood at 38.9 hours.
  • That year, the government first offered incentives to companies to reduce the work week to 35 hours from 39.
  • Then the law was phased in and companies began using its guidelines to negotiate exact terms with workers.
  • By this year's first quarter, the average work week was down to 35.8 hours.

In the past, weekend work for blue-collar employees had been voluntary. Now, however, an employee who works on a Saturday finds that the company averages work time over the entire year, rather than weekly. Overtime hours, instead of being paid, are put into an account that for most employees doesn't result in any cash until the end of the year -- and the Saturday bonus, which may once have been 90 euros, has fallen to 32.

The disillusioned laborers abandoned Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of presidential voting, signaling the end of left-wing rule. The Socialists and their allies aren't likely to fare much better in the legislative contest that kicks off this weekend, followed by a final round on June 16, observers say.

Source: David Woodruff, "Labor Law Backfires on Socialists," Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2002.


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