Friday, November 30, 2007

France's 35-Hour Work Week: A Mushroom by Any Other Name

That 35-hour work week--the very same one that caused the downfall of French President Sarkozy's top rival, Dominique De Villepin--will hit the dust at some point, to the dismay of French socialists.

In spite of Sarkozy's lack of economic sophistication, he is going to succeed where De Villepin failed. How will he do it? By using common language, a direct approach, and a popular mandate.

For example, instead of attacking the 35-hour week head-on, he nibbles away at it around the edges.

[Thanks to for the photo.]

De Villepin tried to break the will of the people, disdainfully and by force. Sarkozy, on the other hand, speaks softly, with respect, and seduces them with common sense.

The first thing he did was to offer workers the idea of working overtime tax-free. They seemed to understand that a vote for him would mean that if they gave him the power to change the system, they could actually get paid instead of being forced to accept time off in exchange for overtime hours, as was the case in certain companies up until now. They bought the argument without fear that their whole way of life was under attack.

Now that Sarkozy is firmly ensconced at the head of the government, we learn that all his posturing was not just for the vote. He has come through on his word and has now kicked the nibbling up a notch.

His advisers are putting legislation in place so that firms can now negotiate with their employees for higher pay and more hours, and they can offer Sunday work at double the pay, whereas Sunday hours used to be illegal, which was a huge drag on consumption and hence GDP growth, jobs, and pay. (In economics, what goes around, comes around, and it's an upward spiral.)

So in fact, what he has done is call this work-week problem by a different name. People are now able to understand that their whole cultural fabric is not under attack; but rather that he would simply like to improve their purchasing power and take-home pay. He does not try to force rehabilitation and capitulation down their throats; he simply points out the specific home-economic advantages of job suppleness, how it improves one's condition, not destroys it as they feared.

You can sense that the "ruse" hasn't worked on everyone, to wit the following reactions from all over the map of French media:

"Sarkozy opens the way to dismantling the 35-hour week" - from right-wing Le Monde

"The assault on the 35-hour week" - at leftist Liberation

"The end of the shackles of the 35-hour week" - in the government-friendly Le Figaro

(Source at Reuters.)

This French president has got a knack. He's getting done what no government before him has managed to do. The 35-hour work week is no longer the enemy, because he has changed its name, encroached upon it from the edges. Even the usual blackmailing thrust of the massive strikes that were going to paralyze the country petered out after a few days.

The reason for his success: Of course Sarkozy's popular mandate, but also his style--in fact, mostly his style.

Although he sometimes comes off as a bit of a spoiled brat, when you really listen to him you can't help but like the guy--unless you're some wacko who hates everybody that doesn't agree with you.

He is wily, yet he talks with frankness, and you feel his wiliness is on your side. His experience and intelligence serve him well, but he seems like a likable ordinary fellow. He is smart, but understandable. He is self-effacing in his public appearances, instead of haughty and overbearing as his socialist rivals tend to be. Most important, you feel like he's bringing you into his plan, instead of imposing it upon you. You have a choice in the matter. You are a part of the solution, not the problem.

Not only that, but he's chosen people like himself to hold the most important positions in the nation. His justice minister is a down-to-earth young woman of North African descent who seems capable, yet quite sensitive and human. His education minister is a young woman who is eloquent, persuasive, non-confrontational, and who absolutely blew a socialist detractor out the window night before last on TV5 television, by proving that she was as well-read as he.

My hopes are up for the future of France. Now, if we can only teach Sarkozy a thing or two about economics, before he embarrasses himself by trying to impose price controls to manage inflation. (He intends to sit down with the CEOs of the big megastores to discuss the issue. Let's hope this time it's just for show.)

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