The French experience of the 35-hour week has not been the calamity so widely predicted, writes Stephen Overell
When the National Union of Teachers called for a 35-hour working week earlier this year, the Education Secretary Estelle Morris dismissed the idea as "potty" and incompatible with being a professional.
It has always been the fate of the 35-hour week to be called mad, and it is evidently no less mad now that the French experiment of le trente-cinq is under way, not so very far from the apparently sane, orthodox shores of Blighty.
The law reducing the "statutory length of actual work" to 35 hours a week averaged over a year has now been in force since January 2000 (January 2002 for organisations with fewer than 20 staff). French employers call it an "absurdity". President Jacques Chirac says it is "ideologically obsolete". Economists fall over themselves to denounce it.
Yet it seems that French workers, with their Wednesday afternoons off and short Fridays, are not quite so convinced of its lunacy. Surveys have found that four-fifths believe their lives have improved because of it.
The new centre-right administration may seek to water it down, but it is hard to envisage a return to the 39-hour week becoming a popular slogan. For some workaholic Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, le trente-cinq is both a compelling and appalling spectacle in equal measure.
The 35-hour week was the flagship policy of the former left-wing coalition led by Lionel Jospin. At its heart lay a beguilingly simple idea: more workers doing fewer hours. If existing workers cut back on their hours, the unemployed could take up the slack - a redistribution of working time that would in the process increase flexibility.
But as economists pointed out at the time of its introduction, the idea that a fixed quantity of work exists to be parcelled out is a fallacy; there is no such thing as a limit on the amount of work that needs doing. Moreover, aggressive state regulation is not the normal way to go about increasing flexibility.
Confusing it may be, but what has been the result? On job creation, the record is mixed. In 1997, unemployment peaked at 12.4 per cent and now sits at about 8.8 per cent. Yet Martine Aubry, the former employment minister, admitted only a fifth of new jobs were directly spawned by the 35-hour week. Most were the result of robust gro