Row as new French economy minister suggests easing 35-hour working week law

Remark before he took office that firms could bend rules on working time shakes French

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 9:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 9:55pm


France's new economy minister touched off a political storm, only one day into the job, with comments made before he was appointed about the law limiting the working week to 35 hours.

Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker and ex-adviser to President Francois Hollande, told Le Point weekly he was open to allowing companies and sectors of the economy to "depart from" the law.

"We could allow companies and sectors ... to depart from the rules on working time and pay," Macron told the weekly in an interview published on Thursday.

"This is already possible for companies in difficulty. Why not extend it to all companies, provided there is a broad agreement with the employees?"

The 35-hour working week, introduced under the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin, is a flagship policy of the French left.

Supporters say it creates jobs by limiting the amount of time employees are allowed to work, thus encouraging firms to take on more staff. Critics say it is inflexible and bloats the workforce.

Macron, whose appointment was a shift to the right for Hollande's Socialist government, said a departure from the existing law would enable companies to get out of a "trap".

Officials scrambled to contain the fall-out from the interview.

The office of Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the government "will respect" the law.

"The organisation of working time can already be altered within companies via collective agreements," Valls' office said, pointing out the interview was "well before his appointment as economy minister".

Labour Minister Francois Rebsamen said the government did not aim to call into question the 35-hour maximum. Even so, Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT trade union, said it was "not a good idea", while the UNSA union dismissed the proposal as "out of the question".

Opposition politicians also leapt on the remarks, with former prime minister Francois Fillon saying he would vote "without hesitation" for a change in the 35-hour week.