Hollande Bravely Takes On the 35-Hour Week

A full day's work.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

French President Francois Hollande likes his job so much that he’s willing to take on one of France’s most hallowed institutions to keep it: the 35-hour work week. It’s a battle France needs Hollande to win.

Granted, the famous 35-hour week hasn't really existed in practice for some time now. The law on working hours remains important to Hollande’s own Socialist Party and the French left, but over the years France’s various governments have weakened it. Factories are allowed to extend work hours, for example, in exchange for promises to keep jobs there. Fully employed workers in France work an average of 40.5 hours per week, only an hour less than Germans or the EU average.

Rather, the problem is what the 35-hour-law symbolizes: France’s convoluted and burdensome employment code. At a mind-numbing 3,800 pages, it’s in need of a thorough overhaul. France has some of the world’s highest minimum wages, most restrictive firing laws and most generous welfare systems. Something has to give.

Last year, the U.K. overtook France as Europe’s second-largest economy by some measures, while economic growth in France lags behind both Germany and Britain. Growth is anemic across Europe, of course, but France’s experiment with labor-market inflexibility surely hasn’t helped. It adds to the cost of hiring and makes it harder for firms to adapt to market pressures. Unemployment is greater, which increases public spending and keeps taxes high.

Reducing France’s unemployment rate -- it remains stubbornly above 10 percent -- will require more than just abolishing the 35-hour week. Another provision of the Hollande administration's draft bill on labor, which will be presented to cabinet on March 9, would make it easier for businesses to dismiss workers. Both of these reforms are worthwhile.

It may well be too late for Hollande, who has said he won’t run for re-election in 2017 unless the unemployment rate falls. But it’s not too late for France.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.