Many Americans were perplexed when a French Socialist government introduced a thirty-five-hour workweek nearly a decade ago. It seemed anomalous, especially given the constraints imposed by globalization. How could the French accept a uniformly imposed reduction of the workweek, even if its aim was to reduce unemployment by creating jobs, and even if “the French work so little,” as popular myth has it? Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president last spring with a clear program: “Work more to earn more.” But what is myth and what is reality in the story of this controversial legislation? Research now allows us to provide a preliminary evaluation of its shorter-term results.
Two Laws, One Principle
Following the left’s electoral victory in 1981, President François Mitterrand aimed to expand employment by making la réduction du temps de travail (RTT, reduction of work time) a priority of labor policy. This revived a principle from the Socialist-led Popular Front of 1936 (the issue then was a forty-hour week). Mitterrand wanted to reduce the legal work limit to thirty-five hours by 1985. When negotiations among the five major labor confederations and employers bogged down, a law was passed reducing the workweek to thirty-nine hours. Hours worked in excess would be paid at overtime rates. A fifth week of paid vacation was also granted. But after 1982–1983, when the government changed its general economic course, reducing working time and the goal of thirty-five hours were abandoned. At the same time, negotiations between unions and employers in other European states, sometimes pushed along by governments, led to a reduction in work time for about half the work force in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. France didn’t follow suit. From 1983 on, the only factor reducing work time was increased part-time labor.
By the 1990s, the idea of RTT returned in order to address persistent mass unemployment. President Jacques Chirac’s conservative government, headed by Prime Minister Alain Juppé, sought to reduce it with the “Robien” law in June 1996 (named for conservative parliamentarian Gilles Robien). It aimed to encourage 10 percent voluntary reductions of hours worked (and the creation of jobs in proportion to the reductions) through government incentives to companies, such as a state-financed reduction in social insurance contributions. The process met with some success, but unemployment persisted. After Chirac unexpectedly dissolved Parliament in the spring of 1997, legislative elections brought the Socialist Party (PS) back to power at the head of a left coalition. It had to put together quickly a program to reduce the unemployment rate, which had by then reached a record level of 12 percent. Socialist ministers focused on youth employment (under age twenty-five) and returned to the idea of RTT. Employers denounced their approach, but the right’s arguments were undermined by the earlier passage...
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