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PARIS: France’s gaffe-prone Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault yesterday created a storm by saying the once untouchable 35-hour working week experiment was open to review before immediately backtracking.
The premier startled the French by saying that the landmark economic reform of a previous Socialist government may be reconsidered as France battles to boost competitiveness and kickstart its struggling economy.
His comments came after Socialist President Francois Hollande, facing the heat from France’s top companies over his economic policies, met the heads of global financial institutions in Paris to discuss the moribund global economy and ways to spur growth. “Why not? There is no taboo,” Ayrault said in a chat with readers of Le Parisien newspaper when asked if he would consider reverting to a 39-hour week. “I am not dogmatic. What worries me is that France is stalling and we need to restart the engine, full throttle.”
But just hours after the interview was published in a country that has powerful unions violently opposed to longer hours, Ayrault back-pedalled. “There is no question of going back on the 35 hours because it is not the cause of our economic difficulties,” he told French radio.
Addressing lawmakers later in parliament, he added: “The legal limit is 35 hours and it will never change as long as the left is in power.” Ayrault’s flipflop came after Labour Minister Michel Sapin said the current working hours should not be scrapped, although Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has mooted a debate on the issue.
Leading trade unions also voiced their opposition to any measure touching the 35-hour week and some hinted at action if this were done.
The right-wing UMP party of Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, which had targeted scrapping the 35-hour week when it was in government, pounced on Ayrault’s about-turn with glee.
“It’s too good to be true! For some minutes I thought I was dreaming that the prime minister has finally assumed political courage,” UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope said. “Alas, that only lasted a few minutes before he was immediately corrected... by his subordinate, the labour minister,” Cope said.
France’s largest employers’ union MEDEF joined in the criticism, saying Ayrault had finally seen the light on the issue.
“There is a problem. Let us therefore proceed in a manner in the coming months that this topic is no longer totally taboo,” said MEDEF head Laurence Parisot.
Some economic experts see a correlation between the rise in the French trade deficit and the 35-hour working week, which was first introduced in 2000 to encourage the hiring of new staff.
It meant that workers could be paid overtime rates if they worked more. However, some put the case that this increased employment costs and hit competitiveness.
According to the Eurostats agency, French hourly manufacturing costs are 20 percent higher than the eurozone average.
To add to France’s woes, there is a ¤37bn ($47bn) hole in public finances, unemployment is past the three million mark at around 10 percent of the working population and there have been thousands of layoffs.
The latest Eurostat report on full-time employment says the British work 42.2 hours a week on average and Germans — widely seen to be industrious — work 40.7 hours, while the French work 39.5 hours. Danes are at the bottom of the scale at 37.7 hours. AFP