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

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

work france

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.

17 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Olivier

    At least for the quality of life it can be a big improvement. We’ve been at 35h per week since our beginning in 2005, distributed on 4 days and a half. Everyone finishes on friday at 1pm, and I can tell you it has a strong effect on employee retention, and has not hampered our growth. I don’t believe it’s a good law for the country, but at least we can use it at our own advantage.

    • Avatar
      Tom

      Great example on how to turn a challenge into an advantage.
      Plus, who cares as long as you deliver?
      It’s so French to count the hours as a metric for quality…

  2. Avatar
    phil_r

    Trista, surely you realise that you’re missing the point here right?

    The pro’s and con’s of the 35-hr work week can only be assessed IF and WHEN you take into account RTT schemes (which stands for “Récupération du Temps de Travail”: that speaks for itself), which were specifically designed to minimize the impact on work week organization.
    So it should come as no surprise that the actual work week still hits around 39 hours (the previous legal limit), but that comes in exchange of additional vacation days (sometimes up to 2 days per month, hence a month per year…!) or other forms of “payback”. To this extent, as many could testify, and contrary to what you are saying, that law has certainly achieved one of its two main purposes: give workers more personal time to improve quality of life. Granted, the impact on unemployment is certainly more difficult to assess, since there are no way of comparing (how would France have fared through the crisis with a 39-hr work week?).
    This also explains why this law is certainly not about to be changed: I don’t know of many people willing to give up on their extra vacation days…

    And I don’t think France needs to demonstrate that people work extra long hours over here: we have made a different choice over the years, and as far as I can see, this has not hampered entrepreneurship, or successes for small and large corporations. People also come to France for its quality of life. I know it’s different in the UK or in the US, and everywhere else. But is it really any better?…

  3. Avatar
    seszett

    Well, your 39.5 hours/week means nothing if you don’t count RTTs, since RTTs are specifically meant to reduce yearly work time for those who work more than 35 hours weekly.

    You way of skewing the numbers show that you’re either tryng to push an agenda, or know nothing of this subject.

    • Avatar
      Trista Bridges

      Nope, no agenda…happy to report on studies showing ‘full effects’ of RTT and other work arounds when that’s avail. Just focusing on 1. Fact: contrary to popular belief, especially outside of France, the French do work more than 35 hrs/wk and 2. My humble point of view: it’s not clear to me why it makes sense to continue with the law.

      Lastly, you imply in your comment that you know quite a lot about the subject, so feel free to share your knowledge with the rest of us!

    • Avatar
      seszett

      “Quite a lot” might be an overstatement, but your source’s source, available here http://travail-emploi.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/2013-047.pdf is quite clear:

      The average time worked per week in France for full-time employees is 35.8 hours, which is indeed more than the legal 35 hours, but not by as much as your article says.

      The one relevant graph is here : http://ssz.fr/brdl/temps-de-travail.png

      Your 39.5 hrs/week figure was not affected by the 35 hrs/week law, which only has to be applied on a yearly rather than on a weekly basis, meaning that a lot of people will choose a 37.5, 39 or 40-hour workweek in exchange for leaving at noon on Fridays, or 12 extra vacation days (I am among them).

      From my own, personal point of view, obviously it makes every sense to continue with this law as I do not want to give up twelve vacation days per year.

  4. Avatar
    hkjrle

    “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.”

    Normal french week for the normal employee? But who is he? Seriously, this point need to be clarified.

  5. Avatar
    Mark

    Interesting article. I’d just like to point out to some of commenters, RTT does not apply to companies with under 20 employees which basically means most start-ups.

    • Avatar
      phil_r

      True, at least at the beginning. But again, we all create companies so that they be successful, likely employing more than 20 people by then.

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  7. Avatar
    informatimago

    The reality for most people is that transport time eats the day. Reducing work hours per day do no good in this respect. What the law should have done if politicians had been serious about it, is to limit work time to FOUR 8 hour work days a week. Ie. 32 hours a week. Instead, with 35 hours, you’re left working five 8 hours work days a week, ie. no change.

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