French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault flip-flops on 35-hour week
Agence France-Presse in Paris
France's gaffe-prone Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault yesterday created a storm by saying the once untouchable 35-hour work week was open to review, before immediately backtracking.
Ayrault startled the country by saying that the landmark economic reform of a previous Socialist government might be reconsidered as France battled to boost competitiveness and kick-start its struggling economy.
His comments came after Socialist President Francois Hollande, facing the heat from France's top companies over his policies, met global bankers in Paris to discuss ways to spur the moribund global economy.
"Why not? There is no taboo," Ayrault said in a chat with readers of Le Parisien newspaper when asked if he would consider reverting to a 39-hour week. "I am not dogmatic."
"What worries me is that France is stalling and we need to restart the engine, full throttle."
But just hours after the interview was published in a country that has powerful unions, Ayrault back-pedalled.
"There is no question of going back on the 35 hours because it is not the cause of our economic difficulties," he told French radio.
Addressing lawmakers later in Parliament, he added: "The legal limit is 35 hours and it will never change as long as the left is in power."
Ayrault's flip-flop came after Labour Minister Michel Sapin said the current working hours should not be scrapped, although Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has mooted a debate on the issue.
Leading trade unions also voiced their opposition to any measure touching the 35-hour week and some hinted at action if this were done.
The right-wing UMP party of Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, which had targeted scrapping the 35-hour week when it was in government, pounced on Ayrault's about-turn with glee.
"It's too good to be true! For some minutes I thought I was dreaming that the prime minister has finally assumed political courage," UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope said.
"Alas, that only lasted a few minutes."
The latest Eurostat report on full-time employment says the British work 42.2 hours a week on average and Germans - widely seen to be industrious - work 40.7 hours, while the French work 39.5 hours. Danes are at the bottom of the scale at 37.7 hours.