35 hour work week fading as the average full-time work week in France nears 40 hours

Jul 30, 2013
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After years of debates over the 35-hr work week which became law in 1998, it turns out that the infamous law is fading into obscurity. A survey which was conducted and recently published by the employment ministry’s research group Dares and covered by La Tribune proves that the “normal” French work week (i.e. outside of vacations, holidays and RTT days) for full-time employees actually far exceeds the legal limit, hitting an average of of 39.5 hrs. While this level of work still lags behind the EU average for full-time employment, when taking into account both full and part-time work, the French actually beat the EU-15 average, coming in at 36.6 hours vs the EU-15 average of 35.6. In fact, they not only surpass the EU-15 average on this measure, but also work more total hours/wk than the Austrians, British, Swedes and Germans. The main driver of this looks to be that part-time work / wk in France is simply longer than in many other European countries, averaging 23.3 hrs in France vs 20.1 for the EU-15.

35-hr work week: a law without teeth

The reality, which anyone who has worked in the French startup or corporate worlds can attest, is that the 35-hr week has never really been the norm. Soon as it became law, all types of schemes to limit its fall-out, such as RTT days, negotiated agreements and mini-reforms, came into effect. As it appears that the established legal limit on work hours is fading away (albeit not taking into account holidays and vacation), it seems that the main impact of the 35-hr law has been to create more hoops for companies to jump through in order to get around it. The principal reasons behind the 35-hr work week, namely to reduce unemployment (which clearly hasn’t happened) and to give workers more personal time to improve quality of life, seem to have faded away over time. And given all the challenges the government is dealing with around unemployment and reform, it’s very unlikely that they’ll jump up to defend the law and/or put more resources behind enforcing it. So, the logical thing would be to simply do away with a law that clearly has no teeth, right?  Well, that’s not likely either as the subject still continues to be a political hot potato, particularly for the current administration. Chances are that it’ll remain on the books and continue to be largely symbolic.

Chance to change perceptions

This study should come as welcome news to the French government, who in responding to accusations that France is a country whose people have little interest in working (famously here and most recently here), tend to either offer non-factual, bland responses or proclaim ‘we’re more efficient’, which is perhaps true but not likely to move foreign investors much. This study presents useful, factual information that busts a big myth about the French work ethic. These findings are actually a big PR gift which the government should be talking about constantly. But given the law’s political issues discussed earlier and the fact that the current administration often struggles when it comes to effective communication, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll utilize these findings.