BY DEREK JEFFERS AND FLORENCE DUVAL
PARIS - At the conclusion of a day-long conference on employment between the government, unions, and bosses' organizations October 10, French Socialist Party (SP) prime minister Lionel Jospin announced a law to be introduced next year lowering the legal workweek from 39 to 35 hours on January 1, 2000, for all companies employing more than 10 workers. Unemployment in France is officially at 12.5 percent of the workforce.
A second law in late 1999 would define "the concrete measures which will accompany the law and its applications," particularly the rate of payment of hours worked beyond the new limit of 35. These measures will be "adapted to the economic situation of the companies," and based on the "health of the economy." Hours worked over the weekly legal limit of 39 are currently paid at 125 percent of the normal hourly wage, but this overtime rate may be lowered if the workweek is reduced to 35 hours, making it inexpensive for employers to circumvent the new limit.
The government has made contradictory noises about whether the shorter workweek will mean a lowering of wages. The first law on the 35-hour workweek, to be voted on in early 1998, leaves the question open. In an interview published in the French daily Le Monde September 16, Jospin stated that the slogan "35 hours paid 39" was not his, claiming it "would be antieconomical." Then in the next breath he added that he was against "a loss in pay." This implies that the government may encourage a policy of not officially lowering wages immediately upon a reduction of the workweek, but will suggest businesses "make up" for this initial concession by freezing salaries over several years while inflation rises, resulting in a de facto decline in wages.
In opening the October 10 conference, Jospin said, "Workers will have to compensate this act of social progress," the 35-hour workweek, "both in terms of the future evolution of wages and in terms of the way in which the workweek is organized." This is generally interpreted as accepting a varied length to the workweek according to the bosses' needs of the moment, without paying over-time, while merely respecting a 35-hour average on a yearly basis.
The government also promised substantial financial aid for business. Any firm that lowers the workweek by "at least 10 percent" and increases the workforce "by at least 6 percent" will receive 9,000 francs (US$1,500) per employee the first year, and somewhat less in subsequent years.
Workers are skeptical
Many workers were skeptical that these laws would lead to new jobs. Gerard Wappler, an assembler at the GEC- Alsthom transformer factory in Saint Ouen, just outside Paris, predicted, "The 35-hour workweek won't be applied here. The Alsthom management's agenda is reducing the workforce, not the workweek." At the Renault auto parts plant in Choisy, also near Paris, Danny Hurgon, who has 30 years of seniority at Renault, said he thought the fight against unemployment should be a major priority. But he wasn't convinced the new government proposal would create jobs. "It's to calm workers down," he said.
Many workers also worried that the new legislation would lead to a lowering of wages, despite Jospin's promises. "We must not give in on our buying power. We have to earn just as much as before," said 40-year-old GEC-Alsthom coil assembler Michel Cousin. "Now that depends on the unions -the unions and us," he added.
Despite the government's concessions to the bosses and the ambiguity of the proposed legislation, the bosses' representatives were furious with Jospin's concluding speech at the October 10 jobs conference. Three days later, National Council of French Business (CNPF) president Jean Gandois fumed to the press, "We were duped.- We have lost a battle, but we haven't lost the war and we are going to fight." CNPF, also known as the Patronat, is an organization of the biggest French companies.
Scathingly criticized by other CNPF leaders for not being hard enough on the government, Gandois resigned as president. The next day the monthly CNPF assembly decided to levy a war chest through special dues designed to finance a major propaganda campaign against the 35-hour workweek.
Government reneges on promises
Meanwhile, on October 13 the National Assembly adopted a government-proposed law to create 350,000 public jobs for youth under 30 during the next several years. These jobs, which will last only 5 years, are supposed to correspond to "new activities" in such areas as education, housing, transportation, and the police. Workers in these jobs will be paid at minimum wage - 39.80 francs (US$6.72) - substantially below wages of other public workers. Eighty percent of the cost of these jobs will be covered by the national government, costing 35 billion francs ($6 billion) over the next three years. The government began talks with the bosses October 10 to create 350,000 similar minimum-wage five-year jobs for youth in private companies.
While the Jospin government has been quick to claim it is fulfilling an electoral promise by moving towards the creation of jobs for youth, it has reneged on other major vows. Less than three months after taking office, on August 21, the Council of Ministers announced that the repressive anti-immigrant Pasqua and Debré laws would not be repealed, but amended through new laws. The council is dominated by the Socialist Party, but also comprises four ministers from the French Communist Party and a leader of the Green Party. This was contrary to the commitments made by all these parties during the electoral campaign in May.
At the same time, according to the Interior Ministry, as of September 30, only 5,000 of the more than 120,000 immigrants without legal residence status, or sans papiers, who had applied for permits to live in France had received them. The others are still hoping for a favorable response. According to Jospin, those immigrants whose request is refused "will continue to be considered illegal, and will therefore have to leave the country."
On October 2 some 1,300 artists and intellectuals, many of whom had helped initiate massive demonstrations against the adoption of the Debré law in February, published a petition in Le Monde calling on the government "to give legal status to all the sans-papiers who have requested it. "
On October 14 the day before the Council of Ministers was set to discuss the new immigration laws, unions and antiracist organizations held a demonstration of 1,500 people in Paris calling for the repeal of the Pasqua and Debré laws and legal status for the sans papiers. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and immigrant defense organizations are calling for a national demonstration in Paris November 22, just before the new laws are to be discussed in the National Assembly.
The government coalition has also backed off its promise to "stop the privatization process" at France Télécom, Air France, and Usinor SA - one of Europe's biggest steel producers. Jean-Claude Gayssot, a leader of the Communist Party and Minister of Transportation, announced September 10 that the capital of the fully state-owned airline Air France would be opened to private investment, although the extent of this opening has not yet been determined. At the same time the SP-led government made known that starting at the end of September, 38 percent of the state-owned telecommunications giant France Télécom would be sold. Three of the six unions, which organize workers there, held a one-day strike September 30 to protest the privatization. Some 26,400 workers out of the 165,000 participated, according to management.
Florence Duval is a member of the Young Socialists in
Paris. Derek Jeffers is a member of the General
Confederation of Labor (CGT) at GEC-Alsthom in Saint
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home