France - Behind the 35-hour law, handouts to the bosses

Mar 2000

When the French Socialist Party-led government first announced its plans to cut the working week to 35 hours, back in 1997, the British press was quick to expose France's "Old Labour" prime minister Jospin who, they said, was going to sink "entrepreneurship" by imposing an unbearable burden on businesses. Fortunately for Britain, Blair was there to protect this country from such "evil".

In fact, even the British left fell for Jospin's mirage, to the extent of pointing to Jospin's planned law as a model that the Labour government should follow here.

Since the first leg of the 35-hour law was introduced last year, however, British commentators have become rather confused. Not only have the profits of French companies failed to falter, but they have actually rocketed. The fact is that in spite of the unbearable thought (that is for our "free-market" commentators) of a state "imposing" a cut in working hours on businesses, the sky has not fallen on the French bosses's heads. What is more, productive investment has remained significantly higher in France than in Britain (even if it is far lower compared to profits than it used to be two decades ago) and, according to OECD figures, productivity is increasing much faster. So some journalists here began to change their tone, until - but only very recently - a review article published in the Financial Times investigated a bit further to find out what was really behind Jospin's 35-hour law. And what they found was, in substance, very much the same as Blair's "flexible labour market"

Of course, the alleged blindness of British commentators was only for public consumption. Having chosen to follow the road opened by Thatcher - that is to cover up his anti-working class policy with the ideological pretext that the market needed to be free of any state interference - Blair and his supporters in the media could hardly acknowledge that state intervention could achieve exactly the same result for business on the other side of the Channel.

But of course, Blair's stance against state intervention was pure hypocrisy as, in fact, on both sides of the Channel the intervention of the state has increased substantially - even though it has done so in different ways - over the past two decades. The only difference between today and say the 1960s, is that, in both countries, the state intervenes much more heavily and directly to subsidise capitalist profits than it used to do, at the expense of public services in particular. As to the main difference one might find in this respect between Britain and France, it is that British capital is more scared to be seen using the state as a milchcow .

So going back to the 35-hour law in France, what is behind this law?

The cut in France's legally-enforceable working week to 35 hours had been one of the promises made by the Socialist Party at the time of the 1997 parliamentary election and Jospin's government prides itself on having delivered promptly. This was not something which was very high on most workers' wish list - they were more concerned about unemployment and the threat of job cuts. However the 35-hour week had been proposed as an objective by some union officials claiming that it would be a way to fight unemployment.

The implementation of this measure resulted in a psycho-drama. The CNPF (the National Confederation of French Employers, equivalent to the British CBI) professed the view that this law was an attack directed against employers. They even went so far as to elect a new president, a "baron" Seillière, who pretended to be a tougher opponent to this law than his predecessor. The CNPF then changed their name to become the MEDEF (Movement of French Companies). If the MEDEF was so vociferous - but this is one of it's favourite tactics - it was in order to ensure that it would gain even more. In doing so they in fact did Jospin a favour, by making him appear to be the bosses' staunch opponent even though his project had in fact been favourable to them from the start. But it took the political short- sightedness of a journalist to write, as Le Monde did, that the 35-hour law, "although designed to favour employment, has encouraged the development of labour flexibility."

In any case the 35-hour was adopted and became known in France as the Aubry law - named after employment minister Martine Aubry, a leading Socialist Party figure and former personnel manager of one of the country's large companies. There are in fact 2 legs to this law - the "Aubry 1" law adopted in June 1998 and the "Aubry 2" law of January 2000. This complex piece of legislation made the phasing in of the 35-hour week compulsory for private companies with over 20 employees from February 1st 2000 and from January 2002 for the others.

There are people who would like to see the bosses' protests as proof that these laws are really favourable to workers. But the large number of disputes caused by the implementation of these laws proves that the majority of workers did not see it that way. And rightly so, because under the cover of a so-called "social" policy, the Aubry laws provide the bosses with new means of imposing the working hours they want at the lowest possible cost.

However, the union confederations did not protest against these laws. The CFDT (a Socialist Party-aligned confederation originating from the Christian trade unions in the 1960s), which for a long time had advocated a cut in the working week as the miracle cure for unemployment, immediately supported the Aubry laws. The CGT (the Communist Party-led confederation) and FO (a smaller confederation formed as an anti-communist split of the CGT in 1947, which is also closely related to the Socialist Party) were more reticent.

The CGT, along with the Communist Party, argued that it was up to the working class, through their actions, to ensure that the Aubry laws resulted in local deals which were favourable to workers. But in that case, one can only wonder what is the use, from the point of view of the working class, of having a "left-wing" government with communist ministers, if the laws they adopt can result in anti-working class measures which impose on workers the need to defend themselves - just as they would have to do under any right wing government!

However, regardless of their general attitude towards the Aubry laws, these confederations all signed local agreements involving the annualisation of working hours - something which can only lead to increased exploitation and a lower standard of living for workers.

In fact the prospect of signing such local agreements was precisely the bait offered by the Aubry laws to the unions - since being reformist, the only objective of these unions is precisely to sit at the negotiating table and sign deals with the bosses. Indeed the purpose of the Aubry laws is said to be a "negotiated reduction of working hours". Everything in their content is aimed at encouraging the bosses to engage in talks with the unions, since companies can only get the state subsidies which are supposed to make up for the extra cost due to the cut in the working week, provided they sign local agreements with the unions. This means that companies which decide unilaterally to reduce working hours are not eligible for the very substantial subsidies granted by the new laws.

A Company where there are no trade unions can only benefit from the state subsidies included in the Aubry laws, provided a legally recognised trade union nominates an employee to negotiate a local agreement with the management - which is an obvious advantage for the union machineries.

A local agreement is valid from the point of view of the Aubry laws provided it is signed by unions whose scores in shop-steward elections add up to at least 50%. If there is an agreement but too few unions to sign it, then it can become valid provided it wins a majority in a ballot of the workforce. But the Aubry laws are designed to encourage a negotiated agreement. Without such an agreement the legal working week will still be reduced to 35 hours but any hour worked over and above 35 hours will be treated as overtime with a 10% premium to be taken in the form of lieu days - so that for companies in which the real working week remains 39 hours, the 4 hours weekly overtime will result in 24 minutes of time off per week!

If the new laws bring some advantages to the union machineries, as far as the workers are concerned the advantages are much more debatable.

True, these laws lower legal working hours but the bosses retain the possibility of resorting to overtime. Besides these laws introduce the idea of "time actually worked". This most definitely sets limits on the application of the cut in working hours because it means that the bosses no longer have to consider breaks or tea-breaks as being included in working hours if the employee is no longer considered as being under the management's orders during this time.

In certain sectors long breaks - which are unpaid - caused by the applied working hours or due to long distances from home, which the employee can put to his own use for his own private needs, were already current. The Aubry laws' idea of "time actually worked" gives legal credit to this.

As for wages after the cut in hours, these laws do guarantee that the workers who are paid the minimum wage and who did not work more than 39 hours per week before, do not lose out on their pay. But for the others, these laws do not guarantee that their previous salary will be maintained. And if the majority of bosses will undoubtedly back down when faced with the risk of employees reactions should their salaries drop, clauses concerning "wage restraint" or "wage freezes" have multiplied and legally so in the agreements which have already been signed.

Furthermore, in companies which occasionally require overtime, workers salaries definitely run the risk of dropping due to an end being put to overtime premiums. Because the Aubry laws allow bosses to implement "annualised hours ", 35 hours per week become 1600 hours per year with a 48 hour working week being the maximum allowed (or 44 hours per week over a period of 12 consecutive weeks) and 10 hours per day. In such cases all hours over and above 35 are not considered as overtime resulting in overtime pay.

The Aubry laws have also introduced into employment laws the possibility for local agreements to take into account work carried out in cycles which are spread over several weeks. In such cases only the hours which are over and above an average of 35 hours per week throughout the entire cycle are considered as overtime. In fact this has often resulted in attempts to make workers work a certain number of Saturdays.

Annualised hours and work in cycles are the means given to the bosses which provide them with a much sought-after flexibility, along with the possibility of making the workers work longer hours (without paying overtime) when the order books are full and part- time when business is quiet, or to resort to shift-work, whichever benefits them most. They most certainly have no worries about the effects which crazy working hours may have on the health or the personal and family life of their employees.

Such aspects of the Aubry laws show just how hypocritical the speeches were which aimed at making this look like a measure to fight unemployment by helping companies to create jobs. If bosses are so hungry for the flexibility which the Aubry laws allow, it is in order to be able to deal with increases in production without having to take on new employees. In most cases they will be able to maintain the same level of productivity as in the past with the same number of employees working 35 hours a week instead of 39.

Even for certain exceptions resulting in an employer having to take on extra workers because of the 35 hour working week, it does not mean that he will lose money, as the state has decided to set up a system (yet another one) of company subsidies. These subsidies (calculated on an estimated scale which has been published, but which is yet to be confirmed officially) are made up of a set amount (FF4,000 per year for every employee, or £360) and a percentage of the gross salary ranging from 26% for those on minimum wage to 0% for those earning 1.8 times the minimum wage. For a minimum wage earner the state subsidy for the employer will therefore be FF21,500, or £1,950 per year. Such a system is particularly profitable for companies employing low-paid workers and thus acts as a real incentive for bosses to pay the lowest wages possible.

Furthermore, this subsidy will be given to all employers, including those who have not created any new jobs, as the law concerns all companies who have created jobs (without stating how many) and those who have "saved" jobs as well - and it is hard to imagine a company that would not claim to have saved jobs!

From the workers' point of view, the Aubry laws will result - at best - in small advantages, such as a slight reduction in working hours or a few extra days off (in companies which do not count hours on a yearly basis). But more often than not it will result in (and it has already) attacks aimed at making workers accept - with the help of the unions who aspire to being good managers of the capitalist system - new restrictions as regards work schedules. In fqct, workers were not fooled and in many companies they fought against the agreements which management wanted them to accept.

This Aubry laws also show just how inefficient the Communist Party's ministers and MPs are. As an open supporter of the Aubry law, the Communist Party could hardly fail to take into account workers' reactions against the first Aubry law. So the CP pretended at first that it would not vote for the second Aubry law, although eventually it did, after some horse-trading with the prime minister.

The anti-working class aspect of the Aubry laws shows the ambiguity of the position adopted by far-left currents who demanded that this law should be amended or replaced with a "good 35-hour law".

Almost 35 years after June 1936, when the working class won the 40-hour week as a result of a general strike, and at a moment in time when productivity has seriously increased, it is obvious that a reduction of working hours should be a normal development. But, with the rise in unemployment, reformist tendencies have seized upon the reduction of working hours with something completely different in mind. The CFDT who abandoned all references to "social Christianity" whilst still retaining this mentality, sheltered behind the problem of unemployment in order to preach a type of job sharing (hand-in- hand with pay cuts) which while supposedly realistic, clears the bosses of any responsibility for the present high level of unemployment. With the new laws on the shorter working week the Socialist Party (even if the bosses do not really show them much gratitude for this) provide companies with a framework which will enable them to exploit workers even more unless they defend themselves.

5 March 2000