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Tuesday, 2 April, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Shorter week fails to woo Calais voters
View of Calais
The 35-hour week is not popular with everyone in Calais
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By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Calais, France

Herve Lefebure mops his brow in a theatrical gesture to demonstrate what France's shorter working week has done for his waiters in the Cafe de Paris.

"The government has cut the hours, but for the same pay. It means the remaining staff have to work much harder," he says.

Lionel Jospin
Lionel Jospin's record on social and economic issues is under scrutiny

Before the shorter week he would have had 10 waiters serving his packed Easter holiday tables in the northern port town of Calais. Now he has eight - but they are doing the work of 10, he says.

He breaks into English to sum up his feelings about the 35-hour week - it is a four-letter word.

And then he dashes off to serve more of his customers.

You might have thought that a prime minister who promised a 35-hour working week, and delivered it, would be on an election winner.

Gardening, DIY, leisure time and new hobbies are booming. Easter Monday shoppers were queuing 10-deep to get out of Calais' biggest DIY store, Leroy Merlin.

Mixed feelings

But Calais seems divided between people who don't like the shorter week because they are employers, and those who like it but still don't think much of Mr Jospin in general.

"Mr Jospin, Mr Chirac - both of them are donkeys," one man told me.

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"The difference between them is the difference between a blanc bonnet and a bonnet blanc (a white hat and a white hat)."

It is a view expressed by many voters, albeit in less colourful terms.

"I'm not really interested in either of them," says transport agency director Dominique Jude, strolling along Calais' sandy seafront with his partner and 10-month-old baby.

His own transport agency in the Somme, where 20 people are employed, has been inconvenienced by the new measures.

"The 35-hour week has maybe boosted Mr Jospin's support with the workers, but damaged it with managers," he says.

Hours struggle

Calais Chamber of Commerce confirms that many members have been struggling to implement the new measures.

"For some factories it is not a big problem, but for small businesses it can be difficult to reorganise," says the chamber's Gerard Barron.

"For example, many women want Wednesday afternoons off to be with their children on a school half-day, which creates problems."

Some voters say the shorter week is a good idea, but people should have been free to choose whether to sign up for it, or to work longer for more money.

It is an election plan being put forward by Mr Chirac - who, interestingly, has chosen to propose adapting the socialist plan, rather than abolishing it.

Hasni Immouni
Hasni Immouni: The shorter week has allowed people more leisure time
Mr Jospin's record on the economy and social changes will be more closely scrutinised here in Calais than elsewhere.

Nearly a quarter of a million people are looking for work in this region, Nord Pas de Calais - making it one of the blackspots in a country of 2.5 million unemployed.

Textile worker Hasni Immouni lost his job at a giant Courtaulds factory when it shut down, but as a card-carrying Socialist Party member, he has nothing but praise for Mr Jospin's record.

Increased leisure

"The shorter week has allowed people more leisure time, just to go walking, be with their children, take up hobbies," he said.

"He has also helped the disabled, the young, the unemployed."

It is hard to find major failings in Mr Jospin's record. He delivered on the 35-hour week - a central plank of his last election manifesto - and has demonstrated a steady hand in steering the French economy through the choppy waters of global slowdown.

Even a mini winter of discontent - which saw strikes by doctors, nurses, teachers, bank workers, air traffic controllers, postal workers, and lorry drivers - has largely faded away.

But his current economic promises - including a 900,000 cut in unemployment and a 3% growth in the economy - seem to cut little ice in Calais.

Most people have little time for Mr Jospin or Mr Chirac, and see little daylight between their policies.

April fools

Back in the Cafe de Paris, Calais' communist mayor is playing the town's best prank in years.

Jacky Henin has announced in the local paper that he has recorded a CD of country music, "Calais Corral", and will be signing copies at the cafe on Easter Monday, 1 April.

Fake CD issued by Calais' communist mayor
Calais' mayor enjoyed a joke with voters

Helped by Calais' own drag queens, comedians Rene Boulogne and Daniel Lapotre, he hands out hundreds of copies to drinkers and passers-by.

Opening the box you find nothing - just a big label announcing that you are an April Fool.

The crowds love the joke. The cafe is buzzing with excitement.

But given the level of cynicism here towards the presidential election - and politics in general - is Mr Henin making the politician's equivalent of a Freudian slip?

Another fantastic-sounding promise from a politician, which, on closer inspection, turned out to have nothing in it.

BBC News Online's Sheila Barter is writing a series of features from around France on the main issues in the upcoming presidential elections.

See also:

08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
25 Mar 02 | Europe
French town bans parking fines
19 Mar 02 | Europe
French candidates go web-crazy
12 Mar 02 | Europe
Chirac and Jospin square up
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