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Top French socialist breaks party protocol over 35-hour week

In France, one of the contenders to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections next year has called into question one of the key policy reforms of France’s last Socialist government: the 35-hour work week.

A hand punching a time clock

France has had a 35-hour work week for a decade

Memories are getting dim of the last time the Socialists governed France, but there's one thing that everyone remembers: The 35-hour work week.

In 2000, with French industry exposed as never before to competition from inside and outside the European Union, France decided to force its people to work less.

One of the ideas was to ease unemployment by encouraging employers to take on more staff. But people on the political right say the measure just encouraged shops, restaurants and hotels to stay open for shorter hours and industry to produce less.

Manuel Valls

Manuel Valls wants an end to the 35-hour week

Work more, earn more

Detractors says public services became even more divorced from the needs of the public than they were already and some businesses were pushed into bankruptcy altogether. Now, those detractors have been joined by a leading light in the Socialists' own camp. Manual Valls is one of the contenders in the primaries organized by the Socialist Party to choose their candidate to fight President Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party at the next election in 2012.

"Unlocking the 35-hour work week means work more to earn more," Valls told Europe 1 radio. "I take up this slogan of Nicolas Sarkozy's which he has been incapable of putting into practice. If we want to re-launch growth in our country we have to be able to re-think the question of the length of time we spend at work."

It is difficult to understate the scale of the break with Socialist Party orthodoxy that Valls' statement represents. It would be like a leading Darwinist saying that all that stuff about monkeys was really all wrong. Additionally, the 35-hour work week was pioneered by the Employment Minister at the time Martine Aubry, who is now Secretary General of Valls's party. On Monday, Socialist leaders were lining up to talk him down.

"Economic Sarkozyism is a failure," Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon told French public radio. "I hadn't understood that the logic of that for our primaries was to take up the 'work more to earn more' slogan, which has failed. This is bad political intuition and I invite Manual Valls to get back on to the straight and narrow."

Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy will have his work cut out in 2012

Hard work a central theme

Manual Valls says France should go further than Sarkozy has done in rolling back the 35-hours reform. Sarkozy has only made it easier for workers to work overtime by making hours worked over and above the statutory 35 tax-free - at considerable public expense. Valls wants to do away with the 35-hour cap altogether. For many on the right, it's music to their ears.

"This proves that, on the left too, people sometimes realize that some reforms may be damaging for the economy," says ruling party parliamentarian Herve Novelli. "This was clearly the case for the 35-hour work week and so the future of this measure must be debated. That some people think this on the left fills me with joy!"

According to the leader of Sarkozy's UMP party, working harder will be one of the main themes of the upcoming presidential campaign.

Author: John Laurenson, Paris
Editor: Rob Turner

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