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So That More Can Work, French Now Working Less

Labor: Nation's 35-hour week is intended to fight unemployment. Some experts fear it may have opposite effect.

July 11, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOURDES, France — Let captains of industry fume and economists puzzle. Jean-Claude Castex, who keeps the fires burning at one of the most revered shrines in Christendom, thinks France's groundbreaking law setting a shorter workweek is divine.

"We used to work 39 hours a week. Now we will work 34," the feutier, or tender of religious candles, at Lourdes, says. "I love walking in the mountains and hunting for mushrooms. I have a wife and two children. Now I'll be able to spend more time with them."

Under one of France's most controversial economic experiments, Castex and 350 other employees at this Pyrenees sanctuary, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a grotto to a poor miller's daughter in the 19th century, have been putting in less time, and earning the same money, since spring.

"The sooner we moved to 34 hours, the better it was," says an enthusiastic Francis Dehaine, a layman who manages the Roman Catholic shrine's $22.5-million budget and oversees the services offered to 5 million pilgrims who visit yearly.

"The more we reduced the time worked, the better the assistance we could give our visitors," explains Dehaine. "And we've been able to hire 32 more people."

By deciding to cut the country's legal workweek to 35 hours from 39, France's Socialist-led government is seeking a miracle of its own: a remedy to 11.4% employment, among Western Europe's highest. The idea is to share the work so more people have some.

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This top-down approach to joblessness is the most marked difference between French socialism and the more market-driven ideas of other left governments in Europe, including those of Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

To Anglo-Saxon thinking, the scheme may sound like economic illiteracy. After a year of operation, the full effects of the June 13, 1998, law--which so far has depended on voluntary compliance--have yet to be seen. But the experiment, the brainchild of Employment Minister Martine Aubry, has already had confusing, sometimes unexpected consequences.

Some businesses, such as Henri Selmer & Cie., a manufacturer of saxophones in the Paris suburb of Mantes-La-Ville, have used the shorter week to push for changes that make employees' schedules more flexible, so they better fit demand.

Instead of putting in an identical number of hours year-round, the usual practice in France, Selmer's labor force has agreed to work 30 hours some weeks, 40 hours others. That should help the firm better meet orders that peak each September when music students enter conservatories.

In theory, such worker flexibility could boost productivity enough to offset the higher costs that inevitably result from a government policy that promises the same pay for less work.

"This is a real cultural revolution," declares Robert Sancelm, a government official in the Hautes-Pyrenees region of southwestern France in charge of helping enterprises and unions agree how to reduce the workweek. "People will have to work in teams, and work will have to be rethought in terms of tasks and not of hours put in. We've been living in the mind-set of the 19th century."

But it is too early in the experiment to know whether such change will take hold across France or can be applied to all types of businesses. If not, some economists warn, France could find itself an island of uncompetitiveness within the increasingly free-market European economy.

Indeed, economists predict the 35-hour week may have the opposite of the intended effect: a net reduction in employment. And the first victims are liable to be the workers at the bottom of the pay scale.

Jacques Maillot, president of Nouvelles Frontieres, which organizes popular charter flights and vacation packages, condemns the law as "idiotic and useless." He's happy to pocket $2 million of the aid the government has been dishing out to ease the transition to a shorter week, but he is also confident his business on its own could have created the 104 new jobs he's being rewarded for.

Last year, under its own steam, France's economy, one of the most robust in Western Europe, grew at a healthy 3.2%, enough to create an estimated 350,000 jobs, the most since 1989.

As of June 30, Aubry's ministry claims, the 35-hour law had generated or saved nearly 86,000 other jobs, arithmetic disputed by independent analysts, who put the number at about half that. Whatever the figure, there's a long way to go to reach the 400,000 promised by the Socialists.

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For many members of the patronat, the leaders of French business and industry, the 35-hour project has become a symbol of their country's enduring lack of faith in the marketplace as the best generator of growth and jobs.

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