Au Revoir to France’s 35-Hour Workweek?

President Francois Hollande and the Socialist Party are trying to change the country’s labor laws.

French students and union workers in Paris protest against the French labor law proposal. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

There are plenty of misconceptions about France’s infamous 35-hour workweek, which perhaps go uncorrected because they limit opportunities to make jokes about the French. As one French economist explained in 2014, the 35-hour standard isn't the law of the land, but “simply a threshold above which overtime or rest days start to kick in.”

For example, France’s white-collar employees typically work far above and well beyond that threshold and, unlike their masochistic American compatriots, they are compensated for it. Meanwhile, those workers whose hours are capped at 35, including many blue-collar workers, only constitute about one-third of the French workforce.

Nevertheless, the symbolic value of the work-life balance in France still has its passionate defenders. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in Paris and across the country protested Wednesday against a bill by the ruling Socialist Party that would alter the country’s labor laws, including the 35-hour arrangement that the Socialists themselves first introduced in 2000. At the time, the measure happened to result in a major drop in unemployment as jobs were shared more evenly. However, many credit that to an expanding French economy.

Now, many in the government argue that the reforms are needed to fix the country’s double-digit unemployment rate and that the bill would bring France in step with the rest of Europe’s labor practices, where unions and employers negotiate the length of the workweek. Others have argued that France’s standards are outdated given how interconnected Europe’s economies have become.

The collection of students, union workers, and leftist activists at the heart of the demonstrations argue that the new measures would give companies the power to conduct more lay-offs and cut worker pay and hours.

“This bill is supposed to help hiring but all I see is that it helps dismissal,” one student protester told Reuters.

According to the AP, police said the protests in Paris alone drew nearly 30,000 participants while unions put the figure closer to 80,000 to 100,000.

Banking his political future on a drop in unemployment is President Francois Hollande, whose personal popularity may have surged in the wake of November’s attacks in Paris, but whose party’s prospects continue to dim as the French economy—Europe’s second-largest— stagnates. Hollande and others within the Socialist Party are facing dissent within their own ranks over the bill.

Should France ultimately change its labor code, which is infamously longer than the Bible, there would (hopefully) be some comfort in the fact that France still gets the fifth-highest number of vacation days in the developed world.