Traditionally France has been seen as a key exemplar in the work life balance arena, often to the frustration of industry and economic commentators.
Since 1 January 2002, the legal working time has been set at 35 hours per week in all companies irrespective of the number of employees. Collective agreements can be concluded between the social partners to set out the actual details of working time and in particular the requirements regarding overtime. This is key because any hour performed over 35 hours per week is considered to be overtime.
Overtime hours can be performed within a maximum amount of annual overtime hours and this is identified in the collective agreements/in-house agreements. As a back stop, if the collective agreement is silent on this point or has not been put in place then there is a maximum amount of annual overtime hours which is defined by Government decree.
This has often led to a great deal of consternation amongst employers and economists believing that this means that France is at a disadvantage to those nation states particularly within the EU who are more flexible in relation to working hours per week.
However, a 35 hour week may now come under further scrutiny. In his recent cabinet reshuffle Francois Hollande appointed a new economy minister, Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron believes that the 35 hour week is something which is not assisting France in tackling its current economic malaise. He recently gave an interview where he supported companies in sectors of the economy that had a desire to “depart from” the 35 hour week. This flexibility has already been afforded to companies that are in difficulty but he is seeking to extend this providing that there is broader agreement with employees.
It has certainly provoked a response from the French unions and the head of the CFDT union is quoted as stating that it was “not a good idea”. However, this may be part of a general push towards greater simplification of French labour laws and attempts to introduce greater flexibility into the labour market.
Whether Mr Hollande has the political will or support to implement these changes remains to be seen but certainly his cabinet now reflects a group of individuals who are more favourable towards implementing flexibility.
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