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The writing is on the wall for the 35-hour week.

The writing is on the wall for the 35-hour week

For many people, France is a country that seems to have everything – a rich history and culture, a pleasant climate, a wide range of foodstuffs that are locally sourced and prepared to the highest quality, stunning landscapes and beautiful cities. It has a reasonably strong economy, based not only on tourism and agriculture but also on a wide range of world-beating technology products such as the high-speed train and giant A380 Airbus. Yet it has somehow managed to achieve this pre-eminence without tying its people to the US or British long-hours culture. France, famously, has the 35-hour week.

Introduced by a Socialist government between 2000 and 2002, the 35-hour week was designed primarily to reduce unemployment and improve work-life balance in France by sharing out the available work more fairly. Instead of having one person working for 50 or 60 hours a week, earning a large amount of money, while another was surviving on the dole, the job could be split in two. Both people would then earn a reasonable living wage – and have the time to enjoy it.

The French ‘solution’ seemed so simple. Why couldn’t every nation adopt it?

The answer, said Anglo-Saxon economists, is globalization. International companies would not set up in France if they could achieve greater productivity from their workforce in Britain, Brazil or Bermuda. Foreign tourists would not linger long in Fréjus if their hotel or restaurant bills were cheaper in Florence or Fuerteventura. Far from cutting unemployment in France, the Anglo-Saxon economists argued, the 35-hour week would actually increase it.

Eight years later, Estevao and Petrongolo (Economic Policy, Jul 2008) show what has actually happened. The law reduced hours of work (no surprise there), raised male hourly wages more than female wages (probably because more females tend to work part-time or short-term contracts) and increased male worker redundancies more than female ones. Job turnover in large firms increased after the law was implemented and there was also more dual job-holding (so much for a better work-life balance, then). The law benefited some groups more than others. It was, for example, particularly welcomed in the public sector, where France’s powerful trade unions ensured that the 35-hour week was scrupulously implemented with no loss of pay. Overall, employment levels were unaffected.

France’s centre-right president, Nicolas Sarkozy, a self-confessed admirer of Anglo-Saxon dynamism, seeks to chip away at the 35-hour week by introducing tax breaks and other incentives for people to work longer. The transition, though, will not be easy. Kotter and Schlesinger (Harvard Business Review, Jul-Aug 2008) reveal that major change is seldom welcome, largely because of misunderstanding, emotional upheaval and lack of trust. The solutions lie in better education and communication, greater worker involvement, facilitation and support, and judicious use of negotiation and agreement on the one hand, and manipulation and coercion on the other. This all takes large amounts of management effort – at exactly the time managers have least time and energy to spare.

Little wonder that so many change initiatives sap the morale of employers and employees. In the end, the most successful reforms tend to be those that appeal to parochial self-interest. Against a global background of sharply rising prices for food, oil and other raw materials, many French people may simply decide that it is in their own interests to swap a longer working week for more pay in their pockets.