French Dilemma: How To Burn Off All That Overtime?

France’s 35-hour work week has plenty of critics who say it has sapped the country of its competitiveness and is tying companies in knots. And to make their case, a leading example is the current state of overtime at French hospitals.

Along with five weeks of annual leave, French employees also get time off if they work more than 35 hours in a week. At the Hopital Vaugirard, a public hospital in central Paris, employees have accumulated more than 2 million days off in the past decade.

By law, that overtime needs to be taken by the end of 2012, but that would mean closing hospitals for months on end. The French government is in negotiations with unions to find a solution.

“For the last decade we haven’t been able to take all our days off because we don’t have enough personnel to fill in. And those who work are overwhelmed,” says Josiane Desmettre, a nurse’s aide at Hopital Vaugirard. “So the days keep building up and some people literally have hundreds to take.”

For President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose 2007 campaign slogan was “work more to earn more,” the 35-hour work week is the root of nearly all France’s economic ills. And Sarkozy uses every opportunity to assail it. Recently he told a sympathetic audience that working more was the only way to get out of the crisis.

“I am not trying to provoke anyone,” the president said. “I tell you this because it is a pure fact – lowering the retirment age to 60 and the 35-hour work week were serious mistakes that we are still paying heavily for … we must repair these errors.”

Sarkozy’s ratings are far too low to take on the popular 35-hour week. But he is trying to open the debate on the subject as he faces a tough re-election campaign this year.

President To Meet Union Leaders

This week he will meet with union leaders to propose negotiating work time company-by-company, as in Germany. It’s well known here that Volkswagen employees work 32-hour weeks.

Olivier Ferrand, the head of a progressive, left-leaning think tank Terra Nova, says Sarkozy uses the 35-hour week as a political tool to attack his Socialist opponents. But according to Ferrand, the shortened week is in no way responsible for the state of the French economy.

“Of course, in some sectors it has been implemented wrongly, it has disorganized the hospitals,” he says. “But the fact of working 35 hours is not in itself a problem. You have to understand that all European countries and now the U.S. are facing the same problem, which is very slow growth and the destruction of jobs. So when there’s a tension on employment you have to share what’s left.”

Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have responded to their downturns by creating a large part-time workforce, says Ferrand, while France has few part-time jobs. The country’s real problem, says Ferrand, is a lack of investment for innovation.

“The last innovation that we’ve given to the world is probably the high-speed train back in the 1970s,” he says. “So we should invest in the financing of innovation and in higher education, which we don’t.”

35-Hour Week Remains Popular

A study that was released last week, and which is now being hotly debated, says that salaried, full-time workers in France work 224 hours — or six weeks — less than their German counterparts per year.

Yet a recent poll shows that while the French recognize the 35-hour work week may not exactly be a boon to the economy, 57 percent still don’t want to give it up.

Back at Hopital Vaugirard, Josiane Desmettre and other nurses are reading to a group of geriatric patients. Desmettre says as a single mother, the 35-hour week helps immensely.

“It’s nice to have the extra days to spend with my kids,” she says. “I want to raise them right. I didn’t have them so I could give them to someone else to take care of.”

To put it simply, says Desmettre, the 35-hour week hasn’t made her any richer, but it has made her life a little better.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.