The Rise and Fall of France’s 35-Hour Workweek

Jonah here. This is part II of a two part series on working-time reduction. Part I was published last Friday and looked at recent experiments with a 4-day workweek. It also discussed the effects of France’s 35-hour workweek, established in the late 1990’s by the Plural Left government of Lionel Jospin. In this post, I take a closer look at the implementation and subsequent rollback of the 35-hours law (known as the Aubry Law, after Martine Aubry, Jospin’s Minister of Labor) since its introduction.

The proposal for a 35-hour legal workweek was first announced by the Jospin government in the fall of 1997. That proposal reflected a long-standing demand for a shorter workweek pushed by sections of the labor movement, particularly the CFDT union confederation (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) and elements of the Socialist Party (PS). But more immediately, it represented an emergency attempt to counter high levels of unemployment, at a time when the jobless rate had reached double-digits. By requiring companies to lower full-time work hours and offering tax subsidies for those that made up the lost time through new hiring, the government hoped to kickstart job growth. The idea, as one slogan put it, was to “work less so more can work.” As described in the first part of this series, that effort was largely successful.

The Plural Left was hardly an alliance of wild-eyed radicals. Jospin was a long-time Socialist Party functionary, whose political approach was moderate and technocratic. His finance minister, Dominique Straus-Kahn, was a neoliberal economist, and future IMF chief. Even Martine Aubry, Minister of Labor and namesake of the 35-hours legislation, had until recently opposed mandating a reduction in weekly work-hours. Once in office the new government pursued a series of controversial privatizations. It later experienced deep internal divisions before suffering a crushing electoral defeat in 2002.

Yet, this moderate administration passed a working-time reform that far outstripped any similar measure by other European governments.

In France, struggles over the duration of the workweek were a consistent theme of twentieth-century labor politics. Yet such demands repeatedly ran up against the opposition of big business. In 1936, the Popular Front government introduced legislation establishing the 40-hour workweek, but the government’s plan soon stalled in the face of stiff employer resistance. The demand for a 35-hour week was again adopted by Socialist leader François Mitterrand in the run-up to his historic victory in the 1981 presidential election. In office, Mitterrand, who campaigned on the promise of “39 [hours pay] for 35 [hours of work],” backed up his pledge to shorten the legal workweek to 39 hours during his first year in office. But with his government’s austerity turn in 1983, plans for a 35-hour week were set aside. In subsequent years, several French governments tried to sponsor voluntary agreements on working-time, offering employers tax incentives if they negotiated deals on lower work-hours with unions. However, this achieved only marginal success, until the election of Jospin’s Plural Left in 1997.

The reforms to lower the legal workweek to 35 hours involved two pieces of legislation. The first Aubry Law, introduced in fall 1997, established 35 hours as the legal norm for a full-time workweek, and set deadlines by which private enterprises had to implement this norm (by 2000, for firms with over 20 employees, and by 2002 for smaller firms). The law offered tax credits to businesses that reached deals on work-time reduction and agreed to hire additional personnel to make up the lost hours. It laid out procedures for the new measure via a combination of traditional sectoral bargaining and company agreements. It established new rules covering both employee compensation (supposed to remain the same during the transition), and how the reform was to be implemented.

The transition to the 35-hour workweek in each workplace relied on hundreds of sectoral agreements and tens of thousands of company accords. Already, by the start of 1999, a government study found that 40 industry-wide agreements covering approximately five million workers had been signed, in sectors ranging from textiles to banking to metalworking (where the employers’ federation took a hard line with unions representing the industry’s 1.8 million workers). The Aubry legislation allowed the new statutory norm to be implemented in various ways. In very few industries was the actual duration of work set at 35 hours a week. Instead, the law encouraged flexible arrangements that compensated employees for time worked beyond the 35-hour threshold through additional vacation time, scheduled early release days, and other methods. To permit this, the law let companies calculate working-time as an annual total, so an employee who worked overtime one week could be compensated with extra days off later. The absolute maximum was set at 44 hours in any given week (or an average of 42 in any 12-week period), while annual overtime was capped at 130 hours.

Many observers have since argued that the 35-hours legislation was not as favorable to workers as its proponents believed. After all, by letting employers calculate working-time on an annual basis, the laws created space to adjust weekly schedules and reorganize the work process. Moreover, because it allowed agreements on working-time to be signed by non-union company delegates, the law also helped further the decentralization of collective bargaining. And it contributed to wage restraint among workers, with productivity growth outstripping pay increases in the years that followed. And for workers in some industries, where the reduction in working hours was not matched by new hiring, the law meant that employees had to squeeze the same tasks into fewer hours.

Nevertheless, most French workers looked favorably on the reform. The bulk of employees affected by the Aubry Law reported that it had strengthened their “work-life balance,” and improved working conditions. Meanwhile, the macroeconomic impact of the measure benefited the unemployed and low-wage workers. Thus, in early 2000, when the law came into effect, polls showed a large majority of the public, including two-thirds of workers and low-level managers, supported the move. A survey that May found that 83% of people thought the law had done more good than harm.

Business Opposition

The flip-side of this was the furious opposition the 35-hours law received from business and the Right. Since its passing, public support for this norm has made it hard for opponents to openly call for its repeal. Instead, their strategy has been to gradually chip away at the 35-hour legal standard, by turning it into little more than a threshold for calculating overtime.
When the Aubry legislation was first announced, it provoked an immediate backlash from business leaders. Learning of the proposal at a government conference on unemployment, Jean Gandois, head of France’s business federation — then known as the CNPF — stormed out of the meeting and gave his own press conference where he angrily denounced Jospin as an “authoritarian” who had tried to “fool” him. By the end of the year, Gandois resigned, claiming he was “more of a negotiator than a killer” and couldn’t lead the “guerilla warfare” needed to stop the 35-hours law. Soon afterward, the CNPF — the main representative of big business in France since 1945 — disbanded, and was subsequently reorganized under a new name (MEDEF) and a new hardline leadership

At the local level, the Aubry legislation precipitated a spike in workplace conflicts. While small businesses struggled to implement the new rules, larger enterprises attempted to use negotiations on working-time to win gains on work-rules and wages, and boost productivity. However, whatever the outcome of these local struggles, employer hostility to the new law was unabated. Big business above all wanted the right to recast the parameters of employment relations, through “social dialogue” with workers inside each company. From their perspective, the Aubry Laws exemplified France’s rigid and cumbersome labor-market regulations.

The campaign to roll back the 35-hour workweek began to achieve important successes with the second Aubry Law. Introduced by the Jospin administration in 1999, Aubry II was intended to fill gaps in the first law. But in its final form, it also included important changes that weakened key provisions in the original legislation. As one labor ministry official noted, the weaknesses of this second law were a concession to business pressure. “The government watered down the law’s requirements to help ease tensions with hostile elements in the business community.” After the Right returned to power in 2002, conservative governments introduced multiple bills to erode the statutes on working-time. The cumulative effect of these measures was such that by 2008, an official in president Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration could announce “the final dismantling of the 35-hour week.”

Since 2008, additional reforms have further “flexibilized” working-time rules, allowing firms to adjust work-hours without new industry-wide agreements, relaxing restrictions on the maximum duration of work, lowering the requirements for business to negotiate concessionary agreements with employee representatives, and giving management the right to ignore work norms in periods of economic distress. Current President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has continued with this strategy.

The government’s approach was captured 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 decide working-time as Mrs. Aubry did in the past.” Instead, “the boss must decide with his employees. We won’t say from Paris what the work hours in a particular factory have to be.”

Today, trade unions and left parties in many countries are again raising the idea of reducing working-time to combat unemployment. In France, that proposal has the backing of several important voices, notably CGT union leader Philippe Martinez, president of the left-wing CGT union federation. Martinez has called for a move to a 32-hour workweek, along with measures to protect employment standards and require employers to make up for the loss of work-hours through new hiring. “That would open up new opportunities to hire and make the working conditions of present employees. more acceptable,” he says. As the experience of the Aubry Laws and the 35-hour workweek show, however, turning this vision into reality requires confronting the power of business. That is no easy task.

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  1. Jeremy Grimm

    After a worklife spent in the u.s. of a. this tale of the 35-hour workweek and efforts to arrive at a 32-hour workweek in France seems like a strange impossible fairy tale.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Not to mention the entire month of August for vacation. (And yet France remains productive, civilized, etc…. How can this be?)

      But, I hear you cry, “What about the essential convenience-givers workers?”

      And I honestly don’t know how France handles precarious workers.

      1. rowlf

        I have been working for several years with a French company on a project and the whole July or August off concept fries US brains. US workers want the French to be in the same crab-bucket as them and US managers rank the vacation up there almost even with unionizing.

        (Picture me practicing my Gallic shrug.)

        Another problem with US brains is confusing 35 productive hours with 40+ unproductive hours.

      2. Jeff N

        The US company I work for used to be owned by a private Netherlands company, heaven forbid they would have given us their same Euro vacation benefits.

    2. Craig

      I have frequently breached the 100 hour work week in the US and worked near it for months at a time. Conversations with “leaders” and colleagues seem to settle on a 50-55 hour work week as an “appropriate” baseline. The management/execs pat themselves on the back for “extracting productivity” from us.

      And PTO? People drag in sick, even now. We see tweets that Biden is working through Covid, and that appears to be an expectation / hallmark of worthiness everywhere in the US. And forget vacation. Plenty of people take almost none.

      The Sword of Damocles never goes away — RIFs for anyone who doesn’t quietly comply and make those long hours count for the company (especially older workers). It’s such a toxic work culture. But it’s not unique. I cannot imagine any kind of common sense workweek ever taking hold here.

      I’m pushing 30 years in Fortune 100 companies. Very tired of all of it. Alas, no pension so I’m here for the duration. Good for France! Show the world something better.

      1. podcastkid

        Thanks for that, Craig.

        Under inverted totalitarianism a really strange thing seems to happen. Companies’ ostensible purposes appear to sort of slowly evaporate (somewhat like the frog-heating-water that doesn’t evaporate). All these purposes can drift into very fragile, absurd, and/or unsupportable dimensions/environments. And Richard Wolff can be saying the the whole thing is about to collapse. Yet TPTB cannot see any real light on the failing ‘extracting productivity’ philosophy. The utter absurdity of it when almost everything for sale at Walmart is produced by a country in the new forming-up competitive trading bloc over yonder [at least France can still build a structure to enclose Chernobyl]. The strange thing seems to be that the old purposes morph increasingly into
        burn-out warehousing dedicated to rendering whatever cantankerous proles left…too tired to question the increasingly popular [prolefeed] distraction. No distraction, though, for the inverted totalitarian paradigm as a whole. Every time one of these paradigms comes along, the foreign adventurism must needs come along with it? Or, is it the adventurism itself that brings them on?

        But oh the light that once popped up here and there in this country. The feebleness of it now measures much time that has passed. And that goes for much of the whole “west” too. Those who still see it in France…even France…can’t get their gov to ditch the Ukraine elixir. Too many in that country can’t even see that it should?

        more thoughts

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Thanks for this, Jonah. Given our provincialism and institutional inertia, it’s useful and necessary to have perspectives on how important labor issues are framed and struggled over in other countries

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