- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

From combined dispatches

PARIS — Attacking a sacred cow — or at least getting it to work more than 35 hours a week — is proving a difficult assignment for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The reform-minded French president found himself in another political muddle as top members of his ruling party contradicted each other yesterday over one of the president’s prime goals: easing the 10-year-old law mandating a 35-hour workweek.

The mixed signals over a policy Mr. Sarkozy once called an “economic catastrophe” are seen by many here as symbolic of the president’s first year in office, which he marked earlier this month. Although the energetic Mr. Sarkozy was hailed as a sharp break with past French leaders, he has made only halting progress in overhauling French economic and social practices to make the country more competitive.

“He took over a country that was feeling insecure and which regarded him as the last chance to solve their structural problems,” wrote noted political analyst Dominique Moisi, but Mr. Sarkozy “failed to convince the French and offer them security.”

The 35-hour workweek, approved by the Socialist government in 1998 primarily as a way to create more jobs, is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the elaborate social safety net that Mr. Sarkozy vowed to change.

Top party leaders of his center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party now appear to be of two minds over how to confront the politically delicate program, strongly backed by the country’s powerful labor unions.

Speaking on the 10th anniversary of the law’s introduction, UMP party chief Patrick Devedjian demanded its “definitive dismantlement,” according to Reuters news agency.

Shortly afterward, the party’s second in command, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said the UMP had no intention of increasing the number of hours employees must work, but rather wanted to give companies incentive to offer overtime.

Mr. Sarkozy later weighed in on the side of caution, saying a frontal assault on the workweek law isn’t in the cards for now.

Many allies think Mr. Sarkozy should be bolder and force the issue. Mr. Devedjian argued that it was time to let each company establish its own working conditions directly with unions.

“The UMP is forcefully requesting the definitive dismantlement of the 35-hour week, and that the length of work be negotiated company by company,” he said.

Then, Mr. Raffarin, Mr. Devedjian’s deputy, said the government wanted no such thing.

“It is obvious we don’t want to touch the legal workweek,” he told LCI television, adding that Mr. Devedjian had meant that firms and unions should merely “discuss” overtime arrangements.

The Socialists voted in May 1998 to reduce the workweek from 39 to 35 hours with no loss of pay, despite the fact that none of France’s major competitors was doing likewise.

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