Emmanuel Macron has been the French economy minister for less than a week and already his words are coming back to haunt him.
Macron, who was appointed earlier this week in a government reshuffle and whose relative youth means that the 36-year-old wasn’t yet born when France last ran a surplus, suggested in an interview with a French weekly that the government could let companies “have exceptions to the rules on working time and remuneration.” This would only apply, he said, if there was agreement with unions.
Macron had actually given the interview before he was appointed. But it was too late—the damage was done. The prime minster’s office put out a statement saying, “The government has no intention of going back on the legal length of the working week.” The head of the France’s CFDT trade union added,”It’s out of the question. The subject is closed.”
France’s famed 35-hour work week has been in place since 2000, when the government cut the work week from 39 hours (in true French style, the charge was led by a Socialist government under a center-right president). In truth, there are many, many exemptions from the law. In fact, the French work an average of 39.5 hours a week (French) compared to the euro zone’s 35.6 hours.
France has fewer people in full-time work, but many of those in temp jobs, neverending “internships,” and part-time gigs work much longer than in other countries. The French also retire earlier than most other countries—in 2010, former president Nicolas Sarkozy once raised it from 60 to 62 but this was met with Arab Spring-style street protests and current President Francois Hollande reduced it again—meaning it has a smaller share of working-age people contributing to the economy. This chart shows the slowdown in French economic growth in terms of each hour worked over the past 40 years:
Macron, a former investment banker, may have incurred the wrath of the unions with his comment but he does have support. Almost two-thirds of the French believe companies should be allowed working-time exemptions if they can be agreed with trade unions, according to two polls.