Europe
9:01 pm
Tue January 17, 2012

French Dilemma: How To Burn Off All That Overtime?

Originally published on Wed January 18, 2012 5:32 am

France's 35-hour work week has plenty of critics who say it has sapped the country of its competitiveness and is tying companies in knots. And to make their case, a leading example is the current state of overtime at French hospitals.

Along with five weeks of annual leave, French employees get time off if they work more than 35 hours in a week. At the Hopital Vaugirard, a public hospital in central Paris, employees have accumulated more than 2 million days off in the past decade.

By law, that overtime needs to be taken by the end of 2012, but that would mean closing hospitals for months on end. The French government is in negotiations with unions to find a solution.

"For the last decade we haven't been able to take all our days off because we don't have enough personnel to fill in. And those who work are overwhelmed," says Josiane Desmettre, a nurse's aide at Hopital Vaugirard. "So the days keep building up and some people literally have hundreds to take."

For President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose 2007 campaign slogan was "work more to earn more," the 35-hour work week is the root of nearly all France's economic ills. And Sarkozy uses every opportunity to assail it. Recently he told a sympathetic audience that working more is the only way to get out of the crisis.

"I am not trying to provoke anyone," the president said. "I tell you this because it is a pure fact — lowering the retirement age to 60 and the 35-hour work week were serious mistakes that we are still paying heavily for. ... We must repair these errors."

Sarkozy's ratings are far too low to take on the popular 35-hour week. But he is trying to open the debate on the subject as he faces a tough re-election campaign this year.

President To Meet Union Leaders

This week he will meet with union leaders to propose negotiating work time company by company, as in Germany. It's well-known here that Volkswagen employees work 32-hour weeks.

Olivier Ferrand, the head of the progressive, left-leaning think tank Terra Nova, says Sarkozy uses the 35-hour week as a political tool to attack his Socialist opponents. But according to Ferrand, the shortened week is in no way responsible for the state of the French economy.

"Of course, in some sectors it has been implemented wrongly, it has disorganized the hospitals," he says. "But the fact of working 35 hours is not in itself a problem. You have to understand that all European countries and now the U.S. are facing the same problem, which is very slow growth and the destruction of jobs. So when there's a tension on employment, you have to share what's left."

Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have responded to their downturns by creating a large part-time workforce, says Ferrand, while France has few part-time jobs. The country's real problem, says Ferrand, is a lack of investment for innovation.

"The last innovation that we've given to the world is probably the high-speed train back in the 1970s," he says. "So, we should invest in the financing of innovation and in higher education, which we don't."

35-Hour Week Remains Popular

A study that was released last week, and which is now being hotly debated, says that salaried, full-time workers in France work 224 hours — or six weeks — less than their German counterparts per year.

Yet a recent poll shows that while the French recognize that the 35-hour work week may not exactly be a boon to the economy, 57 percent still don't want to give it up.

Back at Hopital Vaugirard, Josiane Desmettre and other nurses are reading to a group of geriatric patients. Desmettre says as a single mother, the 35-hour week helps immensely.

"It's nice to have the extra days to spend with my kids," she says. "I want to raise them right. I didn't have them so I could give them to someone else to take care of."

To put it simply, says Desmettre, the 35-hour week hasn't made her any richer, but it has made her life a little better.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And Renee, let's go next to France, where some people are taking a second look at one of the most famous features of the French economy. It's the 35-hour work week, enacted a little more than a decade ago.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Most people don't want to give it up, even in a time of economic trouble. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For the critics who say the 35-hour work week has sapped French competitiveness and is tying companies in knots, there is no better example than the current state of overtime at French hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BEARDSLEY: In public hospitals, like this one, employees have accumulated more than two million days of comp time in the past decade by working more than 35 hours a week. By law, they must take those days off by the end of this year. But that could mean closing hospitals for months at a time. The French government is currently in negotiations with unions to find a solution.

Josiane Desmettre is a nurse's aide at Paris' Hopital Vaugirard.

JOSIANE DESMETTRE: (Through translator) We haven't been able to take all our days off because there's too much work and we are short of personnel. Some people literally have hundreds of days saved up now.

BEARDSLEY: For President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose 2007 campaign slogan was work more to earn more, the 35-hour work week is the root of just about every economic ill facing France. And he uses every opportunity to assail it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Through translator) I am not trying to provoke anyone. I tell you this because it is a pure fact: lowering the retirement age to 60 and the 35-hour work week were serious mistakes that we are still paying heavily for. We must repair these errors.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: While Sarkozy did manage to raise the retirement age, his ratings have been far too low to take on the popular 35-hour work week. Still, he is trying to open a debate about it. Today, in a meeting with union leaders, he's proposing negotiating work time company-by-company, as in Germany. It's well-known here that Volkswagen employees work just 32 hours a week.

Olivier Ferrand, who heads a progressive, left-leaning think tank, says the shortened week has nothing to do with the current state of the French economy.

OLIVIER FERRAND: Of course, in some sectors, it has been implemented wrongly. It has disorganized hospitals because it's been poorly implemented. But the fact of working 35 hours is not in itself a problem. You have to understand that all European countries, and now the U.S., are facing the same problem, which is very slow growth and the destruction of jobs. So you have to share what's left.

BEARDSLEY: Ferrand says Germany, the UK and the Netherlands have responded to their downturns by creating a large part-time workforce, whereas France has few part-time jobs. The country's real problem, says Ferrand, is a lack of innovation and job creation, not the 35-hour week.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: But a study released last week being debated on French airwaves has everyone talking. Salaried, full-time workers in France toil 224 hours, or six weeks less than their German counterparts, and even work fewer hours than their Italian colleagues.

While few French people believe the 35-hour week has actually allowed more people to be hired by dividing up jobs, a recent poll showed that 57 percent of the French still don't want to give it up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Back at Hopital Vaugirard, Josiane Desmettre and the nurses are reading to a group of geriatric day patients. Desmettre says as a single mother, the 35-hour week has allowed her to spend more time with her children.

DESMETTRE: (Through translator) It's nice to have the extra days to spend with them, because I want to raise them right. I didn't have them so I could give them to someone else to take care of.

BEARDSLEY: To put it simply, says Desmettre, the 35 hours hasn't made her any richer, but it has made her life a little better.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.