PARIS – France took a step toward ending its decadelong experiment with a 35-hour workweek, as lawmakers passed a bill that gives companies greater latitude to extend working hours.
The new law, approved late Wednesday, retains the legal limit on working hours but allows companies to negotiate opt-outs with employees. It also lets companies increase the maximum number of working days for white-collar workers to 235 per year from 218.
Reforming the 35-hour law was one of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s headline pledges during last year’s presidential campaign. Sarkozy says the 35-hour law was an economic mistake that did not create jobs as it was intended to do, but he has promised not to abolish it outright.
This hasn’t gotten much press in the US surprisingly, but France is taking steps to end the famous 35-hour work week we have both scoffed at and envied for the past five years. Sarkozy came in promising to make changes and this one was a big one for many of our friends who came to see 35 hours as being symptomatic of a decreasing work ethic in France. But seriously, who really can have a “work ethic” when work in the 21st century is largely about giving over your blood and sweat to gi-normous corporations. Unfortunately, for many white collar workers, who were forced to be out on vacation enough to make the 35 hour math work out, they had to make up the time by increased output at other times, either by staying late or working more elsewhere. Our French friends who run entrepreneurial ventures (restaurants and e-commerce) complained that the rules put another bureaucratic and financial obstacle in the way of their efforts. French friends who are parents with college aged kids worry that they have no ambition or risk-tolerance but just want safe bureaucracy jobs with good benefits and lots of vacation time.
The jury is still out on 35. It was a well-intentioned blow for the worker to get back something from “the man,” but ended up hurting French society and decreasing further a positive business environment that fosters the very productivity the workers want to have a share in, threatening the long-term French economy.