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France

Socialist maverick calls for an end to the 35-hour work week

Video by Jody JENKINS

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2011-01-05

The 35-hour week is part of French socialist lore. But one moderate left-winger who wants to stand as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate says now is the time to get rid of an inefficient millstone holding the economy - and his party - back.

 

It’s a hallmark of French socialist policy - the notorious 35-hour working week is a left-wing cause celebre, a holy of holies that has been chipped away at by successive conservative governments.
 
And now one of the potential future leaders of the opposition Socialist Party (PS), Manuel Valls, wants to see it scrapped.
 
Valls is mayor of the Parisian suburb of Every as well as being a Socialist member of parliament. At 47 he is younger than other potential Socialist candidates for the 2012 presidential election.
 
He is also more energetic and media-savvy, and his drive to be seen and heard is paying off: he has become a recognised figure on the French political scene.
 
And in calling for the end of the 35-hour week, a stance that places him to the right of the traditional PS position, Valls has planted his flag firmly in the ground ahead of the party’s primaries later this year.
 
He told RTL radio on Monday: “The world is changing fast, and it is the responsibility of the left to reconcile the French with this need for change. The 35-hour rule affects this country’s competitiveness and it needs to go.”
 
A Blairite swing to the right?
 
Valls has drawn inevitable accusations of a shift to the right. Indeed, his call for employees to be allowed to “work more in order to work better” echoes Sarkozy’s own election slogan calling on the French to “work more in order to earn more”.
 
Gérard Grunberg, head of research at CNRS Sciences-Po (CEVIPOF) in Paris, told FRANCE 24 that Valls had taken a lead from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labour Party in rejecting the “old and tired socialist dialectic” of the PS.
 
In these tough economic conditions, Grunberg said, the PS cannot afford to promise the generous social model of previous decades, only to break its pledge when attaining power.
 
“Like Tony Blair, Valls wants to win and he wants to govern,” Gérard Grunberg said. “And like Blair, he believes that the only way to do that is to get rid of the socialist orthodoxy that loses his party credibility every time it wins an election.”
 
And that lack of credibility has hamstrung successive Socialist governments: “The PS has never won two successive legislative elections while in power. By aiming at the middle ground and by persuading his party to accept some of Sarkozy’s economic policies, he believes he can buck that trend.”
 
Self-publicity ahead of primaries
 
Valls has also made a direct challenge for the party leadership, specifically at PS grandees Martine Aubry, who sponsored the 35-hour week when serving as labour minister in the late 1990s, and the International Monetary Fund's managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who authored the economic programme of the Socialist Party.
 
Both of them are likely to stand for nomination as the party's presidential candidate for 2012, as is Ségolène Royal, who campaigned unsuccessfully against Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race.
 
“Valls certainly talked about the 35 hours like this to make a buzz and to explain his position ahead of the primaries,” Gérard Grunberg said, insisting that Valls’ politics went “well beyond showmanship” and that he enjoyed growing and genuine support within the party.
 
The US-style primaries, a first in French political history, are due in autumn 2011. They will be a huge challenge to the Socialist old guard.
 
“This is a big opportunity for a real debate that could change the makeup and direction of the PS,” said Gérard Grunberg. “But it is a debate the heads of the party are afraid of because they feel secure in the old orthodoxies of the left. They will fight him bitterly. “
 
Why was the 35-hour rule introduced?
 
The 35-hour working week was introduced in the early 1990s in a bid to reduce unemployment by making it expensive for employers to give their staff overtime.
 
By limiting the hours companies could afford to let employees work, it was hoped that employers would recruit more people to do the extra work in normal hours.
 
From 1997 to 2002, the policy created up to 350,000 jobs, economist Xavier Timbeau told Le Parisien newspaper on Tuesday.
 
Successive conservative governments have chipped away at the rule, especially where it concerns smaller businesses by reducing the tax burden on overtime.
 
In effect, the 35-hour rule now only really exists in the civil service and in large companies.

 

Date created : 2011-01-04

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