Date: Fri, 24 Oct 97 09:55:20 CDT
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: The French 35 hour week
/** headlines: 96.0 **/
** Topic: The French 35 hour week **
** Written 10:08 AM Oct 23, 1997 by labornet in cdp:headlines **
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/* ---------- "The French 35 hour week" ---------- */

The French 35 hour week

By Greg Oxley, 21 October 1997

Ivry-sur-seine, France—The historic decision introducing the 35 hour week without loss of pay represents a major achievement for organized labour in France. Right up until the last hours before the conference on employment and wages which was promised in the election platform of the left, it looked as if Prime Minister Lionel Jospin would capitulate to the increasingly intense pressure of the bosses' union, the CNPF. The fact the Jospin dealt a blow to the employers interests immediately provoked a crisis within the CNPF, with Jean Gandois resigning from the presidency. He will no doubt be replaced by a more implacable hard-liner.

We've been taken for a ride Gandois declared as he came out of the conference hall. In announcing his resignation as the main representative of capitalist interests in France, he said he was more a negotiator than a ‘killer’. I don't have the profile needed to defend business interests against this government. The CNPF has openly spoken of waging a war against the Socialist-Communist majority, in order to force a retreat on the 35 hour week, due to become legally obligatory in all workplaces of more than 10 employees on 1st January 2000.

The bosses are used to being listened to and obeyed by governments. This decision came as a terrible shock to them. They were not the only ones to be taken by surprise. Trade-union activists fully expected a climb-down on the part of the government. Just one week before the conference, Jospin himself had declared that 35 hours without loss of pay would be an anti-economic measure. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Finance Minister, even went so far as to say that everybody knows that such a law would lead to the destruction of jobs on a massive scale.

Interviewed in the press, Jospin justified his action by saying that the bosses left him no choice, in that they obstinately refused to put forward any alternative proposals which would cost them anything. Someone described as a source close to the Prime Minister was quoted in the daily Libération as saying: We hesitated, but in the end we were faced with a choice between creating profound disappointment with the government and possibly a crisis within the left coalition, or else annoying the CNPF.

Unfortunately, the two year period between now and the enforcment of the law will allow the employers to launch a counter attack in the workplaces, increasing pressure for gains in productivity and restructuring the workplace in an attempt to claw back the cost to them of the reduction in the working week. Nonetheless, against a background of massive unemployment, officially over 3 million and in reality closer to 5 million, with the increasingly precarious character of work contracts, and the generalisation of poverty, particularly affecting young people, any attempt to put the warlike declarations of the CNPF into effect will be a recipe for major social upheaval.

The 35 hour week is the result of the growing militancy and political awareness of the French working class. The consciousness of the French workers has been shaped by the concentrated political and social experience of the last 5 years. In 1993, the left parties suffered a colossal defeat in the parliamentary elections of that year, as a direct result of the complete failure of the right-wing policies pursued by Mitterrand and the socialist governments under him. Two years later, with the left in disarray and not presenting any serious alternative to the Balladur government, Chirac won the presidential election of the basis of a radical but completely demagogic program, which was forgotten as soon as the elections were over. Right-wing Prime Minister Juppé tried to introduce a plan of Thatcherite counter-reforms, which provoked the biggest wave of strikes and industrial action ever seen since the revolutionary general strike of 1968.

The victory of the socialist-communist alliance this year was a reflection of the awakening of the working class in the course of this movement. Jospin is a moderate right-wing socialist. Public sector companies have been opened to private capital, and a number of privatisations are scheduled for the coming months. Immediately after coming to power, he betrayed the Renault workers at Vilvorde. But such are the hopes invested in the 35 hour week as a means of fighting unemployment and as a means of improving the quality of life of working people, that unless the employers came up with some credible alternative, it would have been extremely difficult for Jospin to back down.

Paradoxically, the contents of the future law as they have outlined by the government actually go beyond the demands of two of the three main trade union confederations, namely Force Ouvrière and the CFDT.

The 35 hours are a great achievement, but rather than being the end of the battle, this new law will mean an intensification of the class struggle in France. The labour movement has no guarantee that the law will come into full effect unless it continues the struggle. The decision taken by the government in France has already had an impact on the labour movement internationally, giving rise to renewed demands for cutting hours in a number of countries, particularly in Italy.

The French workers have shown the way forward. Either we accept the drive for flexibility, turning the worker into little more than a machine, to be exploited as much as possible at the lowest possible cost, intimidated into accepting low wages and poor conditions by the fear of unemployment, or else the labour movements of Europe will succeed in imposing genuine work-sharing without loss of pay, through the 35 hour and further on through the 32 hour week for all.

Greg Oxley
Syndicat du Commerce de Paris.
Parti Socialiste, Val de Marne.
(Personal Capacity)