France OKs rollback of labor-collectivism

Barack Obama tries to alter global trend

The French Parliament, in a Senate vote late Wednesday, adopted a major economic change that effectively ends the country’s 35-hour workweek. The bill was supported by the upper house’s right-wing majority of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, but was opposed by the opposition Socialists. Senators also adopted other major changes that change rules on strikes, tighten criteria for unemployment payments and free up the economy with plans aimed at bringing down the cost of living by increasing competition.

The measures were approved by the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, earlier this month and now become law with the backing of the Senate.

The change most contested by the Socialists and by trade unions was the move to let companies abandon the 35-hour limit on the workweek, a measure brought in by a Socialist government 10 years ago and denounced by conservatives as a drag on France’s competitiveness.

The new law maintains the working week at 35 hours but gives businesses the right to negotiate directly with employees to decide their working hours.

The 35-hour week was aimed at cutting unemployment and the French statistics institute Insee said it created 350,000 jobs between 1998 and 2002, but at the cost of billions of euros in state aid to companies.

Public opinion polls show that the French still view the 35-hour workweek as a progressive measure that they do not want to part with.

Under the law concerning the unemployed, job seekers will have their unemployment benefits stopped if they turn down a certain number of “reasonable” job offers.

That measure was also definitively adopted by both houses of Parliament on Wednesday.

Another measure approved by senators requires schools to look after children on school premises when teachers are on strike. It also obliges workers to hold “preliminary negotiations” with employers before initiating strike action.

Critics say the law undermines the right to strike.

The economic bill approved by the Senate includes a series of measures to increase economic growth and purchasing power while curbing inflation and keeping state costs to a minimum.

Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said the bill could help increase purchasing power by a possible “1,000 euros per year and per household, starting in 2009.” That is the equivalent of about $1,500.

The government also hopes the legislation will create 50,000 jobs by the end of next year and increase economic growth by 0.3 percentage points each year.


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