Demanding an end to the nation’s 35-hour work week, leaders of France’s governing party got into a divisive tangle resulting in an embarrassment for its president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy, who had pledged during his election campaign last year to rid the nation of the controversial law, is seeking to reassert his reformist zeal following a setback in local elections and a severe decline in his popularity ratings.
The law, enacted 10 years to the day by the nation’s Socialist government, underscores the continued split within the center-right government.
Senior leader of the Union for a Popular Movement, Patrick Devedjian, started the ball rolling by proposing that his party was “forcefully requesting the definitive dismantlement of the 35-hour week” and the creation of provisions to allow companies to negotiate their own work schedule agreements.
Devedjian's deputy, Jean Pierre Raffarin, then provided political damage control by stating the governing party didn't "want to touch the legal work limit."
France’s Labor Minister, Xavier Bertrand, then said, “We have to keep the legal 35-hour limit,” suggesting that beginning next year, companies might be permitted to negotiate even more overtime.
What Devedjian had meant, Raffarin contended, was that companies would be able to negotiate more overtime.
Sarkozy then weighed in, saying that Bertrand, “had spoken well.”
The controversial law, mandating weekly overtime pay of 25 percent above normal wages after 35 hours has been frequently debated. In the most recent amendment Sarkozy, who once called the law a disaster, exempted companies and employees from overtime taxes, costing the government $11 billion a year.
Many have decried the law, but the 35-hour limit, which began in 1998 with a mandate that salaries not be reduced, has become a sacred cow among French voters.
This latest confusion represents an embarrassment for the president. However, it is a major issue for labor unions, and for those voters who have arguably benefited the most from the shorter workweek: employees with comfortable incomes who enjoy having more free time.
Last summer, Sarkozy’s government adopted legislation exempting companies and employees from taxes and social charges on overtime. However, most firms have failed to boost overtime despite the incentives, and a recent survey showed the French were world champions when it came to holidays, enjoying an average of 37 days of paid holiday a year, against 27 in Germany, 26 in Britain and 14 in the United States.
“What I demand is the right for companies to opt out of the workweek and negotiate their own,” Devedjian said.
The confusion in policy is emblematic of the political indecision that has characterized every attempt by the center-right administration to reverse the law made in 1998. While some leading Socialists have acknowledged that the policy has hurt French competitiveness, few politicians are willing to propose eliminating it.
Elected last year on the mantra "work more to earn more", Sarkozy has used this initiative as a reason not to tinker with the legal work week.
"It is not the government's intention to abolish the legal working limit because it is the base point for calculating overtime," he told parliamentarians in January.
One union advisor said the timing of the announcement on the 10th anniversary of the law was deliberate.
“We want to show that the ruling party, which has a majority in Parliament, wants to keep the president’s promises,” said Marie-Célie Guillaume. “We need a clear view on the 35-hour week on its 10th anniversary.”
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