The rise and fall of the 35-hour workweek in France

Jonah gentlemen. This is the second part of a two-part series on reducing working hours. Part I was published last Friday and looked at recent experiments with the 4-day work week. It also discussed the implications of the 35-hour workweek in France, instituted in the late 1990s by the pluralist left-wing government of Lionel Jospin. In this post, I will take a detailed look at the implementation and subsequent repeal of the 35-hour law (known as the Aubrey law, after Martine Aubry, Jospin’s secretary of labor) since its introduction.

The proposal for a legal 35-hour workweek was first announced by the Jospin government in the fall of 1997. This proposal reflected the long-standing demand for a shorter workweek put forward by parts of the labor movement, in particular the trade union confederation CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) and elements of the Socialist Party (PS). But more directly, it represented an emergency attempt to counter high unemployment at a time when the unemployment rate was in the double digits. By requiring companies to shorten working hours and offering tax subsidies to those who make up lost time with new hires, the government hoped to kick-start job growth. The idea, as one slogan put it, was to “work less to work more.” As described in the first part of this series, these efforts have been largely successful.

The plural left could hardly be called an alliance of wild-eyed radicals. Jospin was a longtime Socialist Party functionary whose political approach was moderate and technocratic. His finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was a neoliberal economist and future head of the IMF. Even Martin Aubrey, secretary of labor and namesake of the 35-hour workday law, until recently opposed the mandatory reduction of working hours per week. After coming to power, the new government carried out a series of controversial privatizations. He later experienced deep internal divisions before suffering a resounding election defeat in 2002.

However, this moderate administration introduced a reform of working hours that far outpaced any similar measure taken by other European governments.

In France, the struggle over the length of the workweek was a recurring theme in twentieth-century labor politics. However, such requirements are repeatedly met with opposition from big business. In 1936, the Popular Front government passed a law establishing a 40-hour workweek, but the government’s plan soon stalled in the face of stiff opposition from employers. The demand for a 35-hour workweek was again adopted by the Socialist leader François Mitterrand ahead of his historic victory in the 1981 presidential election. Having come to power, Mitterrand, who campaigned on the promise of “39 [hours pay] at 35 [hours of work]backed up his promise to cut the statutory workweek to 39 hours during his first year in office. But with his government going into austerity in 1983, plans for a 35-hour workweek were shelved. In the years that followed, several French governments tried to sponsor voluntary working time agreements by offering tax breaks to employers if they negotiated shorter working hours with unions. However, this achieved only marginal success until Jospin’s election from the pluralist left in 1997.

Reforms to reduce the statutory working week to 35 hours involved two pieces of legislation. Aubrey’s first law, passed in the fall of 1997, established 35 hours as the legal standard for a full workweek and set the deadlines by which private enterprises had to introduce this standard (by 2000 for firms with more than 20 employees, and by 2002 for small firms). The law offered tax breaks to businesses that reached agreements to reduce working hours and agreed to hire additional staff to make up for lost time. It outlines the procedures for the new measure through a combination of traditional industry negotiations and company-to-company agreements. He set new rules regarding both employee compensation (which was to remain the same during the transition) and how the reform was to be implemented.

The transition to a 35-hour workweek in every workplace relied on hundreds of industry agreements and tens of thousands of company agreements. As early as early 1999, a government study showed that 40 sectoral agreements had been signed, covering some five million workers, in sectors ranging from textiles to banking and metalworking (where the employers’ federation took a hard line against trade unions representing trade unions). industry 1.8 million workers). Aubrey’s legislation allowed for the implementation of the new statutory rule in a variety of ways. In very few industries, actual working hours have been set at 35 hours per week. Instead, the law encourages flexible mechanisms that compensate employees for hours worked in excess of the 35-hour threshold through additional vacation time, scheduled early release days, and other methods. To allow for this, the law allows companies to calculate working hours as an annual total, so an employee who worked overtime for one week could later be compensated in the form of extra days off. The absolute maximum was set at 44 hours in any week (or an average of 42 hours in any 12-week period), and annual overtime was limited to 130 hours.

Since then, many observers have argued that the 35-hour law was not as favorable to workers as its proponents believed. After all, by allowing employers to calculate working hours on an annual basis, the laws created space for adjusting weekly schedules and reorganizing the workflow. Moreover, since it allowed non-unionized company representatives to sign working time agreements, the law also furthered the decentralization of collective bargaining. And this contributed to the limitation of wages among workers, since in subsequent years productivity growth outpaced wage growth. And for workers in some industries where the reduction in working hours was not accompanied by new hiring, the law meant that employees had to complete the same tasks in fewer hours.

Nevertheless, the majority of French workers reacted positively to the reform. Most employees affected by the Aubrey Act reported that it strengthened their “work-life balance” and improved working conditions. Meanwhile, the macroeconomic impact of the measure benefited the unemployed and low-paid workers. Thus, in early 2000, when the law went into effect, polls showed that the vast majority of the population, including two-thirds of workers and lower-level managers, supported the move. A May poll showed that 83% of people believe the law did more good than harm.

business opposition

The flip side of this has been fierce opposition to the 35-hour law from business and the right. After its adoption, public support for the rule prevented opponents from openly calling for its repeal. Instead, their strategy was to gradually cut back on the statutory 35-hour standard, reducing it to nothing more than a threshold for calculating overtime.
When the Aubrey Act was first made public, it generated an immediate backlash from business leaders. Upon learning of the proposal at a government conference on unemployment, Jean Gandois, head of the French business federation, then known as the CNPF, stormed out of the meeting and gave his own press conference, in which he angrily denounced Jospin as “authoritarian” who was trying to “deceive” him. At the end of the year, Gandua resigned, stating that he was “more of a negotiator than an assassin” and could not wage the “guerilla warfare” needed to repeal the 35-hour law. Shortly thereafter, the CNPF – the main representative of big business in France since 1945 – was dissolved, and subsequently reorganized under a new name (MEDEF) and a new rigid leadership.

At the local level, Aubrey’s legislation provoked an upsurge of conflict in the workplace. While small businesses have struggled to implement the new rules, larger businesses have tried to use working time negotiations to benefit from work and wage rules, as well as increase productivity. However, whatever the outcome of this local struggle, employers’ hostility to the new law did not abate. Big business, above all, wanted the right to change the parameters of labor relations through “social dialogue” with employees within each company. From their point of view, the Aubrey laws are an example of the rigid and burdensome regulation of the French labor market.

The campaign to reduce the 35-hour workweek began to make important headway with Aubrey’s second law. Introduced by the Jospin administration in 1999, Aubrey II was supposed to fill in the gaps in the first law. But in its final form it also included important changes that weakened key provisions of the original legislation. As one Labor Department official pointed out, the shortcomings of this second law were a concession to pressure from business. “The government has relaxed the requirements of the law to help ease tensions with hostile elements in the business community.” After the right returned to power in 2002, conservative governments introduced several bills to undermine working time laws. The cumulative effect of these measures was such that by 2008, an official in the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy could announce “the final dismantling of the 35-hour workweek.”

Since 2008, additional reforms have led to further “flexibility” in working time rules, allowing firms to adjust working hours without new industry agreements, relaxing restrictions on maximum hours of work, and reducing the requirement for businesses to enter into concession agreements with worker representatives. and giving management the right to ignore labor standards in times of economic crisis. The administration of current President Emmanuel Macron has continued this strategy.

The government’s approach was taken up by Macron’s right-wing interior minister, Gerald Darmanin. In an interview, Darmanin argued that instead of one national standard, “we can work less in some companies when there are fewer orders or when there is more added value, and we can work more in some companies that have enough orders.” Darmanin insisted that the government “is not going to solve the issue of working hours as Ms. Aubrey has done in the past. Instead, “the boss has to decide with his employees. We will not say from Paris what the working day should be in this or that factory.

Today, trade unions and left-wing parties in many countries are again raising the idea of ​​reducing working hours to combat unemployment. In France, this proposal was supported by several important voices, in particular the leader of the CGT trade union, Philippe Martinez, president of the left-wing federation of trade unions CGT. Martínez has called for a 32-hour workweek as well as measures to protect employment standards and is demanding employers make up lost hours with new hires. “This would open up new opportunities for hiring and improving the working conditions of current employees. more acceptable,” he says. However, as the experience of the Aubrey laws and the 35-hour work week shows, in order to bring this vision to life, it is necessary to resist the power of business. This is not an easy task.