Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

29 August 2014

This week a possibly fatal blow was struck to what many believe is a bastion of French culture – the almost sacred 35-hour maximum working week. A few days after taking up his new position as France’s minister of the economy, Emmanuel Macron – a former merchant banker – said the country’s worker guarantees should be made more flexible.

Although only instated in the year 2000, the law had been an aspiration for French workers for decades before then. In the early 20th century, thousands went on strike to gain an eight-hour working day. Now, with the 35-hour week, which means seven hours per weekday with a statutory hour for lunch on top, the French workforce has reached office nirvana. It’s a system where the notion of being reasonable takes precedent over executive profit. Add to this some other rather agreeable aspects of French working life such as the still very common occurrence of businesses shutting down for the whole month during August, and perhaps there's a case for whipping the workforce into shape.

These factors lead many outside of France to ridicule the French and their working ways, portraying them as a bloated and over-cushioned, slovenly workforce, which drives away investment and simultaneously prevents many of France’s 3.5 million unemployed from proving their worth. But come on. Aren’t all those holier-than-thou English and American economists just a little green with envy?

But the current case of the French workers’ not-so-pitiful plight does at least allow all of us – from CEO to seafood chef – to have a little think about how many hours we think make an acceptable working week.

Recently the Finnish Parliament questioned whether the Finns should increase their maximum working week from a very precise 37.5 hours to a rounder, more realistic 40 – the latter being more inline with the time that workers were actually putting in. The debate caused outrage, raising fears over the health and sanity of potentially over-stretched employees. “Coping at work is an investment in the future,” said one union representative when discussing the terrifying two-and-a-half-hour rise.

Meanwhile in typical British fashion, the UK has a well intentioned but stumblingly centrist solution with its 48-hour working-week directive. “Directive” being the operative word, as the government’s website kindly nudges employers about giving their workers a choice over their hours – or something like that.

Whether it’s the non-existent system in London or the rigidity of the rules in Paris, it seems that telling people how much or how little time to spend in the office is all very hard work.

David Plaisant is associate producer for Monocle 24.

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