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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 March, 2005, 17:51 GMT
Q&A: French working hours
French workers protesting against planned changes to the 35-hour working week
The changes to the 35-hour working week have angered many workers
France's National Assembly has passed a bill that all but brings to an end the country's greatly cherished and much envied 35-hour working week.

What will the changes mean?

The 35-hour week will not be abolished, but employers will be allowed to offer extra hours at a higher rate of pay.

France's workers will now be able to clock on for a maximum of 48-hours a week, should they so wish.

They also will be able to sell holiday back to employers, or put it towards training and early retirement.

Was the 35-hour week popular?

Very much so.

Many people had got used to working fewer hours a week, and often only working four out of five days.

Despite the shorter hours, French workers were some of Europe's most productive.

And they were reckoned to be some of the region's least stressed and happiest.

So why the change?

Critics of the 35-hour week said it was a barrier to greater prosperity, faster economic growth and fuller employment.

Originally brought in on a voluntary basis in 1998, it was made compulsory by the former Socialist-led government two years later in the hope that it would prompt employers to take on more workers.

However, with unemployment stubbornly stuck at 10% and economic growth sputtering, the calls for change have grown increasingly and persuasively loud.

Is there likely to be opposition?

Almost certainly.

Despite the overwhelming vote in parliament, where the bill was passed by 350 votes to 135, trade unions and many voters have said they will fight any changes.

French train worker on way to protest against job cuts
There could be more protests ahead

Already there have been protests with critics seeing the bill as the thin end of the wedge and forecasting even greater erosion of worker rights and protection.

Tensions have been building since the centre-right government of President Jacques Chirac unveiled plans to overhaul the country's social security system and labour market.

Policymakers have already made it less attractive for employees to retire at 60 and increased the importance and availability of private pension schemes.

They also intend to limit the amount of money people can claim for health treatments and medicines.

On top of that, public sector pay has stagnated over recent years, leaving many workers feeling that economic growth is leaving them behind, analysts say.

Why push through such unpopular changes?

The package of reforms is aimed at cutting state spending.

France has an ageing population that is putting increased pressure on its healthcare and pensions system.

The country's budget deficit has been running at more than European Union limits for a number of years despite assurances that it will bring the shortfall back under 3% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Economic growth is sluggish and a lack of reform has often been cited as a key reason for Europe lagging behind the US and its bustling economy.

There also is pressure from the private sector with companies complaining that the limits on overtime and the working week make them uncompetitive.

The government, meanwhile, insists that it wants the labour market to be more flexible, letting people work more and earn more if they want to.


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