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France Eases Law Restricting Workweek to 35 Hours

By Erika Lorentzsen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page A12

PARIS, March 22 -- The French Parliament voted Tuesday to relax the country's controversial 35-hour workweek law, a move that supporters say will make French companies more competitive but that labor unions call an attack on employee rights.

The legislation, passed on a vote of 350 to 135 after lively debate, gives businesses more flexibility to negotiate overtime pay, vacation times and workweeks that exceed 35 hours.

Labor Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, left, answers questions from lawmakers as Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin looks on. Shortly afterward, the workweek proposal was approved. (Jacques Brinon -- AP)

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Some analysts said the measure would have little immediate impact on France's economic problems. "This law isn't out of economic or social necessity, but more of an ideology of the center-right in favor of businesses," Stephane Rozes of the CSA polling firm said in an interview.

The 35-hour rule was proposed in 1995 by the Socialist Party to combat unemployment rates of 12.6 percent. Under a socialist government, it became compulsory in 2000, with supporters calling it a model of enlightened worker rights for modern Europe.

Today, France has a 10 percent unemployment rate and its economy has stagnated. The government is now in the hands of the Union for a Popular Movement, which contends that the workweek limit has been part of the problem and has lobbied for the past three years for changes.

Business groups argued that the law has been responsible for excessive labor costs and has discouraged foreign investors from setting up in France.

But the Socialists and other supporters contend that of 2 million net jobs created in France from 1999 to 2001, 350,000 were the result of the 35-hour workweek. Providing for longer vacations and, in many cases, regular weekdays off, the limit remains very popular with the public. Polls show a 70 percent support rate.

More than 300,000 people turned out across France on Saturday to march against the bill.

Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary general of the national Force Ouvriere union, vehemently opposed the legislation, saying it would favor employers. But strikes and the power of unions in French society have declined in recent years, and unions faltered in efforts to mobilize workers to block the changes.

Elie Cohen, an economist, said many French workers will feel a pinch from the new law. "Most workers get a certain amount of vacation time, and by tomorrow, those workers will have less," Cohen said.

On the other side, Cohen said, changing the law "was really popular with big firms like the carmakers Renault and Peugeot, and at the end of the day, these companies can better manage" their operations.

The government did not seek to abolish the limit outright because of concern that such a step would sacrifice public support for a vote in May to ratify the European Union's first constitution, some analysts suggested. "The French political establishment don't want to rock the boat before the vote," Pepper Culpepper, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, said in an interview.

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