Europe News

Will France say ‘au revoir’ to the 35-hour week?

Jessica Hartogs, Special to CNBC
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France was hit by a wave of protests Wednesday, as labor unions and students took to the streets to demonstrate against French president Francois Hollande's proposed labor reforms -- including an end to the shortest working week in Europe.

The sweeping reforms, which most notably contain a proposal to scratch France's famous 35-hour work week, have been met with angry reaction throughout the country. Overtime pay for work beyond 35 hours could also be cut.

Other changes put forward by Hollande's socialist government include more flexibility in hiring and firing, thus giving French companies more flexibility to employ.

France: Employees must avoid work email after 6 pm

It will give employers more scope to lay off workers and cut costs, allow some employees to work far longer than a 35-hour week and make it easier to fire workers on economic grounds when companies run into difficulties.

The government says this would free up businesses to offer more permanent contracts.

Currently, the majority of new French private sector jobs that are offered are on short-term contracts with little security.

French employment law notoriously favors the employee in dismissal cases, making it very expensive for the employer to hire. Many blame France's high unemployment rate on this.

France's 35-hour working week under threat

France's jobless rate is at an 18-year high of more than 10.2 percent with almost one in four under-25s unemployed, according to the European statistics service Eurostat.

Graduates find themselves working temporary contracts for years at a time or doing internship after internship while hoping to secure a job.

However, although France sticks to its rigid 35-hour week, French productivity per hour remains far higher than Britain's and even a touch above Germany's (though yearly hours worked in France are lower, and the unemployment rate twice as high) reports The Economist.

As the labor protests kicked in, transport was affected across France - the Eurostar and national rail operator SNCF both reported cancellations and delays.

BFM TV reported that there were more than 220 miles of traffic jams in the roads in and around Paris.

A majority of French people favor a reform of the labor laws, but 70 percent oppose the government's way of going about it, according to a poll in Le Parisien.

A second demonstration and strike day is planned for March 31.

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