Legislators in France toil to shorten workers’ hours

PARIS (AP) — Lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday that would cut France’s workweek from 39 to 35 hours, without a pay cut, by 2000. Supporters say it will help pare the high jobless rate.
The measure is strongly opposed by business leaders, who argue that it will lead to higher costs and job losses. Other European countries have scoffed at the Socialist-backed plan as well.
It would be one of the biggest labor changes since 1936, when the Popular Front introduced paid vacations and the 40-hour workweek, radically altering the lives of the working class.
The Socialist-dominated National Assembly adopted the bill by a 294-244 vote. It will be sent to the Senate, which is expected to approve it. It would then be signed into law by the president.
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who has made the bill a centerpiece of his Socialist-led government’s policies, claims the law will help spread jobs to more people.
At just over 12 percent, unemployment is France’s most pressing problem, and the government knows that much of its popularity will rest on the ability to reduce joblessness.
French business leaders say the measure is counterproductive and will cost firms too much money, forcing some to close and ultimately reducing the number of jobs rather than creating them.
The government has said that wages would remain the same despite the cut in hours, but in recent months it has backtracked and said salaries may have to reflect the reduction in hours.
Companies with more than 20 employees would be required to adopt the measure by 2000. The rest would have until 2002 to comply with the law.
Companies will be offered tax or other incentives in the first year if they act in advance of the deadline.
Some key issues remain to be worked out, including exactly how the law will be applied. Management wants the right to average out the number of hours over the year to give it flexibility.
Legislators have agreed in principle to let employers calculate work hours over an entire year, allowing for longer or shorter hours a week depending on business activity.