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French asked to embrace their inner entrepreneur

Tax cuts are aimed at fueling businesses and boosting the workweek.

July 27, 2007|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The French want to be paid more to work less. When they're not on holiday, they're on strike. Or, as President Bush probably never said, the trouble with the French is that they don't have a word for "entrepreneur."

It's all true except when it isn't.

The word "entrepreneur" may have gone missing from the French spirit, if not from its vocabulary, but the new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is determined to bring it back and has the legislature working overtime in a special session to do so.

His center-right government is slashing taxes and encouraging expansion of the 35-hour workweek. It's trying to mandate minimum services during France's frequent transportation strikes. In general, it's trying to make things easier and more profitable, particularly for the small and medium-size businesses that are the backbone of the French economy.

The changes Sarkozy seeks amount to a cultural revolution in a country that ousted its aristocracy in a bloody revolution in the 18th century and, in recent times, has had years of Socialist Party rule protecting its labor unions and workers' rights.

Many French entrepreneurs are ready for a storming of the economic Bastille, as it were.

"It is very, very expensive to run a company here, and some people think we're crazy to run a company in France," said Olivier Willkomm, 34, co-owner of OGK Art Design. "I am happy with Sarkozy's speeches about how we want people to work. This is really something new that we haven't heard in France for years."

Willkomm is among a growing class of thirtysomething French men and women who are hungry to do business. They want to be their own bosses, to exercise creativity and independence at work. And they say they want to make money, which in France is akin to admitting a dirty secret.

"This is not like the United States. If you want to open a company in France, you're the bad guy. You're trying to make money, to steal money," Willkomm said.

"In France, if you say you are a salesman, it means maybe you are a thief or a scammer," said Guenaelle Boch, 32, who gives motivational and sales training workshops through her husband's firm, Idefi.

French society has valued stability over risk-taking. Even today, more than three-quarters of the country's youths between the ages of 15 and 25 say they would be content to be a functionnaire, or civil servant -- a lifetime job that comes with subsidized lunches, good healthcare and early retirement benefits.

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Trickle-down economics

About 5 million people, or nearly 20% of the workforce, are employed by the government. Sarkozy wants to reduce the size of the public sector by filling only one of every two posts vacated through retirement, and to spur private hiring through tax cuts and employment flexibility.

The French president hopes he can manage to implement a trickle-down theory without the confrontations that President Reagan had with air-traffic controllers and that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had with mine workers in the 1980s.

Sarkozy also hopes to avoid a repeat of the mother of all French strikes: a massive walkout of students, postal and transport workers and others over pensions and firing laws that lasted five weeks in 1995 and paralyzed the country. That winter strike forced workers to hitchhike and ride bicycles in the snow to get to their jobs.

Although French workers are generally productive when they're on the job, the 35-hour workweek, on top of five weeks of annual vacation, has meant they spend far less time at work than their competitors. On average, the French log 1,440 hours a year, compared with 1,850 in the United States and 2,000 in Asia, says Sarkozy advisor Nicolas Baverez.

To stay within 35 hours a week, many people take Mondays or Fridays off to make long weekends, or Wednesday afternoons, to be with their children on a day when school lets out early. As a result, the French say, the only fully reliable workdays in the country are Tuesday and Thursday.

Valerie Doublet, an account manager at Societe General bank, said she chose to take Wednesdays off not only to be with her children, but also to do business and administrative errands that can't be done on the weekend. The latter proved futile.

"I thought it would allow me to do everything I couldn't do during the weekend, but as a matter of fact, a lot of administrative offices are not open Wednesday. As a result, I get nothing done on Wednesdays," she said.

Sarkozy's initial cuts will eat into the government budget. He already has warned his European Union partners that he plans to cut taxes by up to 15 billion euros, or more than $20 billion, a year to stimulate the economy and that he probably will renege on promises to eliminate the French budget deficit by 2010. He says he cannot guarantee it before 2012.

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