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French unions march to defend 35-hour week

Latest update : 2008-06-17

The CGT and CFDT unions called on their members to march Tuesday against a government plan to revise the 35-hour work week and make it possible for companies to negotiate directly with employees on overtime and compensation.

PARIS - France is set for a new battle over the 35-hour work week, with unions calling for strikes against government plans to make it easier for companies to get their staff to work longer hours.


President Nicolas Sarkozy has blamed the 35-hour week, introduced 10 years ago when the Socialists were in power, for weak growth and other economic problems but the centre-right leader has resisted calls from his own side to scrap it.


"In France it is hard to go back on any established social advantage and polls show that those French employees who are actually experiencing the 35-hour week are attached to it," said Stephane Rozes, head of polling institute CSA.


"That is why government strategy is to try and make the law more flexible, to get around it in some ways, rather than risk a head-on clash over such a symbolic issue," he said.


Welfare Minister Xavier Bertrand will on Wednesday present a new bill to the cabinet that would open the way for negotiations at company rather than industry level on maximum numbers of overtime hours and compensation for them.


The proposal does not go as far as some members of Sarkozy's own UMP party wanted. The head of the party, Patrick Devedjian, had called for the 35-hour week to be scrapped completely.


But as the unions see it, the plan gives greater power to bosses who tend to be stronger in negotiations at company level rather than at industry level where they face the full weight of the unions.


They have called for nationwide strikes and marches on Tuesday as a show of force ahead of Wednesday's cabinet meeting.


For all the furious argument, many economists say Bertrand's proposed changes to the 35-hour week will have limited impact compared with two earlier batches of reforms.


Those included tax breaks for firms and employees for overtime work and allowing employees to choose cash rather than time off in exchange for overtime work.


"Compared with what was already done in 2007, the new reforms will not bring any fundamental change," said Jean-Louis Mourier, economist at brokerage Aurel Leven.


The unions are taking a gamble by calling for yet another day of strikes after countless other protests this year over issues from pension reform to public sector job cuts and high fuel costs. The risk of strike fatigue among workers is high.


But there are risks for the government as well. Whatever happens on Tuesday, new protests could break out in September when workers return from their summer breaks.

Date created : 2008-06-17