France's shortened work week: boon or folly?

December 08, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- France's new prime minister, Lionel Jospin, made a preelection commitment to cut the official workweek from 39 to 35 hours (as is common in Germany), with no reduction in pay. He has now been compelled to do something about this promise, which some in his government wish had not been made.

A project of law now has gone before parliament which would install the new hours after the year 2000. But many who voted for him want their reward now. His problem is to persuade his supporters to wait for the slow and prudent installation of a change that the business world believes will restrict France's growth and actually worsen unemployment.

Left wing cause

Shortened working hours are passionately supported by the left wing of Mr. Jospin's governing alliance of Socialists, Communists and ecologists. He has trod with great circumspection in the matter. He proposes government-industry cooperation during the next two years to develop constructive modalities for the change. He would delay application of the new workweek until those consultations have concluded and would apply the change initially only to the biggest employers. Small enterprises would be spared until 2002.

Election looms

The significance of this timing is that the present parliament comes to its scheduled end in 2002, and a presidential election will also take place that year, if President Jacques Chirac serves out his full term. Thus the electorate will make a judgment on the 35-hour week before it becomes generally applied.

Companies are invited to use the shortened week to increase job flexibility and productivity by annualizing hours worked, developing double- or triple-shift work so as to maximize use of fixed capital and increase the number of part-time workers. Government social taxes will be reduced for the companies that take on new employees.

Naturally the conservative parties, the confederation of industries, orthodox economists and much of the foreign press have derided the notion that reducing working hours will create new jobs. They say the net effect will be negative.

The orthodox consensus was undoubtedly expressed in a recent report to the European Union by a Consultative Group on Competitiveness headed by the former director of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Jean-Claude Paye. It argues that ''contrary to the belief of many people, even though there is a long-term trend toward less working time because of productivity gains, work sharing -- to the extent that it rests on the static assumption that there is a given amount of work to share -- is not the best way to create sustainable employment. Economic activity is a collective creation: Work creates employment.''

In response to such arguments, one defender of the Jospin government's program has offered the following American judgment, from early in this century, on the six-day, 60-hour workweek then common: If such a work schedule is maintained, the author said, ''with modern methods of production, we will quickly be forced to close factories because people will not have the time to consume what has been produced. Instead, industry leaders must pay high salaries and give workers leisure . . . which should not be thought of as idleness or confused with unemployment.''

The words are those of Henry Ford, who revolutionized American industry both with the assembly line and with salaries for workers so high that his employees could buy the cars they made.

Another supporter of shorter hours has remarked that when France's Popular Front government in 1936 mandated regular summer vacations for factory workers, against pitched opposition from most industrialists and economists, it unknowingly invented what has become today's biggest industry -- tourism.

The argument this writer would make is that while the debate is a constructive one, and the 35-hour week, paid for 39, will not be the ''disaster'' many French businessmen predict, the project embodies a mistake and an illusion. The mistake is its assumption that the quantity of available work is fixed. The illusion is its reactionary indifference to the economic creativity of work. The fundamental objection to it, however, is that it is an irrelevance and political distraction.

Hours worked count less as the nature of the wealth-giving product changes from tangible object, made up laboriously from raw materials, with calculable value, irrevocably sold to a buyer, to the intellectual product whose real cost is difficult or impossible to establish, being relative to circumstance. This product may be sold but is not transferred. The maker still possesses it after it has been sold.

As the nature of what creates wealth in the technologically and intellectually advanced economies changes, the nature of work and of employment changes.

I myself think that the new government of France makes a more interesting attack on unemployment when it attempts to put into practice the idea that new kinds of jobs have to be created that possess social value and create social income. This responds both to the decline in classical forms of work and attacks a problem identified by John Kenneth Galbraith many years ago. In too much of our world, private opulence coexists with, or even preys upon, public squalor. This has to be changed, for political as well as economic reasons.

William Pfaff, a syndicated columnist, will address the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs tomorrow.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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