New French President Plans to Change Work Week

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Nicholas Sarkozy, the newly elected president of France, campaigned against the country's 35-hour work week that has been in place since 2000. Now he says he won't abolish it but plans on making some changes.


Nicolas Sarkozy takes over today as the president of France. He has promised to bring in big changes for workers. On Wednesdays we focus on the workplace, and today, we examine France's 35 hour workweek. American employers in France complain about the short workweek, even though economists say it doesn't actually make France less productive.

Anita Elash reports from Paris.

ANITA ELASH: Changes to the 35 hour workweek were a key part of Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign platform.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (French spoken)

ELASH: In speech after speech, he talked about the need to put France back to work and said he would allow the French to earn more money if they work longer hours.

President SARKOZY: (French spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

ELASH: Sarkozy's campaign promise struck a chord with employers who've never liked the shorter workweek. Work time was reduced but wages weren't, and employers say that cut into their profits. In a recent survey of American businesses in France, more than 90 percent said the 35 hour week was the biggest factor stopping them from expanding their investments here.

Oliver Griffith is with the American Chamber of Commerce in France.

Mr. OLIVER GRIFFITH (American Chamber of Commerce): The 35 hour workweek is a competitive disadvantage, just like they're in a competitive disadvantage with low-wage countries or low-tax countries like Ireland or the Baltic states. So they have to - France has to find its competitive edge where it can, and having the 35 hour workweek does not help.

ELASH: If people work more than 35 hours, they get time off to compensate. That may be unpopular with employers, but it's very popular with their employees. Sarkozy has never suggested abolishing the 35 hour week; he's promised instead that people will get paid for their overtime and the extra earnings won't be taxed.

But many economists aren't sure that will change much. The Organization for Economic Development says the 35 hour week has had a neutral effect on business. Paul Swane(ph) of the OECD says if Sarkozy wants to rejuvenate the French economy, he should think about cutting red tape rather than the 35 hour week.

Mr. PAUL SWANE (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development): It is true that France is unique in doing this and I think the business community in France feels like the government makes it harder for them than their colleagues in other countries because they have a lot of regulations, high taxes and so on. And to some extent I think the 35 hour week is the symbol for them of this overregulation by the public sector and maybe more so than that than the problem in and of itself.

ELASH: Swain says overall the 35-hour week doesn't seem to have affected profits. It didn't solve the unemployment problem, but it hasn't made things worse either. French workers are among the most productive in the world, equal to or better than Americans per hour worked. And while wages have increased more slowly in France than in other European countries, polls show most French workers are willing to accept a bit less money in exchange for more time off.

Ms. SHIPATO FRANCOIS(ph) (Research Technician): (French spoken)

ELASH: Shipato Francois is one of them. She's a research technician in Paris suburb of Antoine(ph).

Ms. FRANCOIS: (French spoken)

ELASH: Officially, I'm supposed to work 37 and a half hours a week and get an extra 15 vacation days in return, she says. I use them for my hobby, raising and showing cats.

But like many French workers, Francois complains that she's already working extra overtime she isn't compensated for. And for that, she says she'll gladly take some extra tax-free money.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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