Forget all those stories you’ve read that the French are apparently a nation of the work shy, spending as little time as possible on the job and instead enjoying more days off than their counterparts in other European countries.
A new study out this week puts paid to that myth and actually reveals what many who live and work in this country probably already knew.
There are a fair number of people who work longer than the official 35-hour week.
So many in fact according to l’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (the national statistics office, l’Insee) that the average working week of Monsieur le Français et Madame la Française is more in the order of 41 hours a week.
The survey was carried out among more than 72,000 people and, described as a so-called snapshot of the job market here in France, reveals some perhaps surprising and significant trends.
While the average working week of the French turned out to be 41 hours, there were of course a number of employment sectors rating far higher.
Farmers top the list, working on average almost 60 hours a week, the self-employed around 55 hours, management (all levels combined) 44 hours and even blue collar workers almost 39 hours.
Of course it rather raises the question as to who, if anyone, is actually benefiting from that 35 hours a week.
The simple answer would appear to be the five million or so “fonctionnaires”, or civil servants, employed in the public services or former state-owned companies that have been partially or fully privatised, but where the same employment protection laws are still very much part of the “way things are done.”
The survey also reveals that unemployment is at 2.2 million, or eight percent of the working population of 27.8 million.
That’s still pretty much well short of the target the government has of five per cent by 2012, but figures can be massaged of course and there are other tendencies revealed by l’Insee, which might help the official level “drop” by then.
For example if the current trend continues, the number of those working on a short-term contract (contrat durée determinée, CDD) is likely to increase and that could have a significant impact on future figures.
Those on CDDs now account for 12 per cent of the working population (up from 11.1 in 2004) and there has also a rise in part-time work.
Those trends also present a somewhat double-edged sword for future unemployment figures. Yes they’ll allow more people to come off the official register, but they also reflect that the French job market is becoming more precarious and that even without government intervention, it’s moving away from the long-established model enjoyed for decades of “jobs for life” in the shape of the contrat durée indeterminée.
So where does this latest report leave the 35-hour working week and the promise of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy promise to shake up the French job market?
After all he’s known to be less than enthusiastic about a policy introduced by a Socialist government just over 10 years ago, which he claims has cost the country billions of euros, created few job opportunities, made French companies less competitive internationally and on whom he blames a fair share of the country’s economic woes
Well first up of course, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice here how fortuitous the timing of the study is for the government. It comes less than a fortnight after changes in the employment laws were hustled through parliament; changes which will in effect signal the beginning of the end of the 35-hour working week.
In law the 35-hour working week will continue to exist. It needs to so employees can choose between being paid for overtime or taking days off they’ve accumulated.
But Sarkozy’s oft repeated mantra that the French be given the opportunity to “work more to earn more” will also have more credence now that “proof” exists that for the past decade, during which the current legislation has been in operation, many people have in fact been prepared to work much longer hours than the law allows.
It’ll also undoubtedly help in his stated goal of reducing the number of fonctionnaires and weaken the opposition’s claims that there’s no popular sentiment for his proposals.
Perhaps most importantly what the study reveals is that there is already a degree of flexibility in the job market – at least among a high proportion of those in employment, and that the French are more willing to adapt than previously thought.
In other words, France is already working.
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