- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2008

Michel Guyot often takes a weekday off to go to the Sugiton limestone cliffs on the Mediterranean Sea in southern France to smell the thyme and listen to the cicadas. Those cherished moments may soon be history, he says.

The engineer for a Total SA venture at a port near Marseille says it’s likely to be just a matter of months before his employer applies a law passed by France’s parliament this week that may reduce time off for white-collar workers, or cadres, by as many as 17 days a year.

“It’s a specter, a cloud over my head,” said Mr. Guyot, 60. “No more escapes to Sugiton to take a step back from work. This law will bring more stress, frustration and less productivity.”

Mr. Guyot, like other white-collar workers, is bracing for a dimming of their “joie de vivre” as President Nicolas Sarkozy pushes to keep a promise to “restore the value of work.” With the late night passage of the law Wednesday, Mr. Sarkozy has rung the death knell of France’s 35-hour workweek, undoing labor rules put in place a decade ago by the Socialist Party.

Under that system, blue-collar workers were limited to 35 hours a week on the job. Cadres received days off to compensate for working more than 35 hours a week, giving them total annual paid leave of about seven weeks, including vacation.

French employees’ hours are the second-lowest in the Group of Seven industrialized countries, behind Germany, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The French worked an average 1,561 hours in 2007, 291 fewer than in 1979. American workers put in 1,794 hours, down 31 hours.

The new law, which lets companies negotiate working hours, overtime and compensatory time directly with employees, is part of Mr. Sarkozy’s effort to counter a slump in economic growth and may come into effect in early September.

Since taking office last year, Mr. Sarkozy has blamed the 35-hour workweek for weakening French competitiveness. He fired his first salvo last year, allowing blue-collar employees to work more than the cap, in exchange for 25 percent more pay for additional hours. Companies were exempt from labor taxes for these hours.

The new law dismantles the final piece of the rule, allowing cadres and their employers to swap days off for more pay. It raises the upper-limit of working days to 235 a year from 218, paying cadres 10 percent more than their standard salary for each day above 218.

Many cadres - who make up just over 15 percent of the working population - are infuriated with the new law.

“Sarkozy is always asking for more, more productivity, more hours,” Bernard Van Craeynest, president of their CFE-CGC union said. “But eventually he’ll see more sick leave, less motivation, more burnouts.”

More than 300 cadres from companies including France Telecom SA and steelmaker ArcelorMittal took to the streets of Paris on Wednesdaywith banners saying, “There’s life beyond work,” and “It’s my private life, I care.”

“Working more for those who want to is a right,” said Eric Pigal, 44, a manager at Accenture Ltd. in Paris and a CFE-CGC union representative. “But paid 10 percent extra? That’s not enough.”

The French have paid for their extra time off. Average annual wages in France grew just 3.4 percent from 1995 to 2006, slower than the 4.7 percent rise in the U.K. French economic growth has lagged behind the U.K.’s every year since 2000.

“Having more leisure time and no money to make it worth it is like lying to yourself,” said Michel Sapranides, who owns Pelatis SA, a 40-person electrical maintenance business near Paris. Mr. Sapranides says the new law will help his business expand faster. Most of his employees have offered to work more to earn more, he said.

Not everybody is so optimistic.

“The 35-hour week brought us a balance between working hard and having time to enjoy the fruits of our labor,” said Patrick Lecuyer, 47, who is based in Toulouse and organizes assembly lines for Airbus SAS.

“By breaking the system, companies may break white-collar employees’ motivation,” he said.

French white-collar workers earned an average of $6,045 a month after taxes in 2006, four times the minimum wage and twice the average private-sector income, according to the Paris-based Insee statistics institute.

Cadres were among the biggest Sarkozy supporters in the May 6, 2007, presidential election, with 52 percent voting for him, according to Paris-based pollster Ipsos. His approval rating among them dropped 23 points to 30 percent, Ipsos said this month.

“The 35-hour workweek was most favorable to the cadres because they had the money to enjoy their free time,” said Jean-Francois Doridot, head of public opinion at Ipsos. “There is a political risk in attempting to take it away.”

Mr. Guyot agrees.

“Sarkozy’s desire is to awaken France and boost growth,” he said. “But for me, his plans sound more like a call for austerity than modernity.”

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