French PM backtracks on scrapping 35-hour week

French PM backtracks on scrapping 35-hour week

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault stirred up a hornet's nest today by saying the 35-hour week, a landmark economic experiment launched by a previous socialist government, could be scrapped before hastily backtracking.

The gaffe-prone premier startled the French by saying the once untouchable 35-hour working week may be reconsidered as France battles to boost competitiveness and kickstart its struggling economy.

His comments came after Socialist President Francois Hollande, facing the heat from France's top companies over his economic policies, met the heads of global financial institutions in Paris to discuss the moribund global economy and ways to spur growth.

"Why not? There is no taboo," Ayrault said in a chat with readers of Le Parisien newspaper when asked if he would consider reverting to a 39-hour week. "I am not dogmatic."

"What worries me is that France is stalling and we need to restart the engine, full throttle," he said.

Some economic experts see a correlation between the rise in the French trade deficit and the 35-hour working week, which was first introduced in 2000.
According to the Eurostats agency, French hourly manufacturing costs are 20 percent higher than the eurozone average.

To add to France's woes, there is a USD 47 billion hole in public finances, unemployment is past the three million mark at around 10 percent of the working population and there have been thousands of layoffs.

The latest Eurostat report on full-time employment says the British work 42.2 hours a week on average and Germans -- widely seen to be industrious -- work 40.7 hours, while the French work 39.5 hours. Danes are at the bottom of the scale at 37.7 hours.
But just hours after the interview was published in a country that has powerful unions who are violently opposed to longer hours, Ayrault backpedalled.

"There is no question of going back on the 35 hours because it is not the cause of our economic difficulties," he told French radio.

"A reader of Le Parisien asked me this question. I said there were no taboo subjects," he said in a clumsy defence.

Ayrault's flipflop came after Labour Minister Michel Sapin said the current working hours should not be scrapped, although Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has mooted a debate on the issue.

Leading trade unions also voiced their opposition to any measure touching the 35-hour week and some hinted at action if this were done.

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