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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 17:56 GMT
French MPs vote out 35-hour week
French national assembly
The government wants to ditch the Socialist legacy
French lawmakers have voted in favour of a controversial bill to increase the country's 35-hour working week.

The proposal backed by a large majority allows private-sector employees to work up to 48 hours a week.

The vote followed weeks of protests from trade unions fearing the move may empower companies instead of unions to dictate working hours.

President Chirac's government hopes the Senate will approve the bill next month, after which it would become law.

System revamp

Observers say the 370-180 vote underscores the government's determination to revamp a system that it blames for a stubbornly high unemployment rate and rising labour costs.

French unemployment figures stand at about 10% of the work force amid complaints from private sector companies that the existing system makes them uncompetitive.

It means management will decide the working time, not the employees
Dominique Barbet
Chief economist, BNP Paribas

Other than allowing people to work for up to 48 hours in a week - the EU approved maximum - the proposal also relaxes the overtime limit from 180 hours per year to 220.

Workers' groups, however, are threatening further demonstrations over the plans, arguing that the proposal was the first step towards undermining a social security system consolidated by President Jacques Chirac's socialist predecessor.

Trade unions are taking heart from a recent poll suggesting 69% of people were against longer working hours, correspondents say.

More than 300,000 people marched in protests at the weekend, according to an interior ministry count.

'Weak unions'

However, the unions' power to call strikes in the event of the plans going ahead is limited, believes Dominique Barbet, chief economist at bank BNP Paribas.

"Only 8% of French workers are members of a trade union. Even if they look strong, they are not strong," he told BBC World TV.

"This will mean the end of the shortened working time.

"It means management will decide the working time, not the employees."

Socialist MPs managed to force the vote to be delayed by a day on Tuesday.

But Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin says the government will not be deterred.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris says Mr Raffarin's current slogan of "work more to earn more", seems to have become the battle cry in a bitter ideological fight between those who want to protect the French social model and the reformers.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Why France's government wants a longer working week



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: French working hours
01 Feb 05 |  Business
Raffarin to reform 35-hour week
09 Dec 04 |  Europe
Q&A: What's behind French strikes?
18 Jan 05 |  Business


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