LONDON: If the wider world is ever to understand the scale of the challenge facing France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, as he begins a new French revolution with the radical and un-French recipe, “Work more to earn more”, one just has to make friends with Michael.
Though Michael is not his real name, he is, in every other way, a bonafide beneficiary of France’s extraordinary economic model, which taxes hard work. Michael is a fine, upright, London-based Quebecois, who has spent eight years working for Agence France-Presse, the world’s oldest established news agency with journalists in 165 countries and a heart that is unmistakably French.
Last summer, Michael was told he had earned nearly half-a-year for “overtime”, ie working more than 35 hours per week. Disbelieving but delighted, Michael spent his six-month leave on full-pay working in the press department of another international organisation. “The bonkers bit,” he says, “is that even while I was on earned leave, the extra week in overtime kept rolling in so the period of leave on full pay kept lengthening”.
Leave aside Michael’s Canadian scepticism for a moment, instead consider his circumstances. And his case is still one of the best examples of the mountain Sarkozy has to climb if he is really to revive France’s moribund economy.
For eight years, France has operated the 35-hour work week, which grossly penalises eager beavers and merrily taxes income gained through working harder than other people. But Sarkozy is adamant the French crisis of confidence and economic cul de sac has a definable identity. Just days before Sunday’s election win, the combative, untypical, Hungarian-Jewish politician declared, “France’s moral crisis has a name. It is a crisis of work”.
He added, in that televised debate with Socialist opponent Segolene Royal, which was watched by 20 million French workers: “I want the workers to be respected. I want to protect the French from seeing their jobs going abroad. I don’t believe in living on social welfare. I don’t believe everyone is the same. I believe in merit, I believe in effort and reward for that effort and I believe in social mobility. But above all, I believe in hard work.”
France, said Sarkozy in Gallic-Thatcherite mode, must be put back to work. Despite the rhetoric, the new president has his job cut out for him. Outgoing president Chirac leaves his successor a stagnating economy and unemployment at 9%, which rises even higher among the young, with at least one-quarter of under-24s out of work.
Accordingly, Sarkozy has promised to make the 35-hour working week a minimum rather than a maximum, calling it one of France’s most poisonous legacies. The 35-hour week, introduced by the Socialists in 1999, has long drawn the wrath of some employers who say it is uncompetitive and failed to create jobs for the masses. The reduced statutory work week came into effect on 1 January 2000. Its introduction was very popular with most French people admitting they had got used to working fewer hours every week and often working only four out of five days. Almost every global workplace survey found that French workers were the happiest in Europe.
But with French unemployment stubbornly stuck at the high single-digit mark and nearly at 10%, critics of the 35-hour week have constantly said it is a barrier to greater prosperity, faster economic growth and fuller employment. Michael and others whose work life is governed by French employment law may not agree, but it is this constituency of 35-hour-work week beneficiaries Sarkozy must convert before he can prove himself a latter day Gallic Messiah.