France's new economy minister sparks storm over '35-hour' law

AFP , Thursday 28 Aug 2014

Newly-named French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the official handover ceremony at the Bercy Finance Ministry in Paris August 27, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

France's new economy minister touched off a political storm Thursday, only one day into the job, with comments made before he was appointed about the controversial "35-hour" labour law.

Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker and ex-advisor to President Francois Hollande, told Le Point weekly he was open to allowing companies and sectors of the economy to "depart from" the law limiting French employees to a maximum 35 hours of work per week.

"We could allow companies and sectors... to depart from the rules on working time and pay," Macron told the weekly in an interview published on Thursday but carried out the day before he was appointed.

"This is already possible for companies in difficulty. Why not extend it to all companies, provided there is a broad agreement with the employees?" he added.

The 35-hour law, introduced under the previous Socialist government of former prime minister Lionel Jospin, is a flagship policy of the French left.

Supporters say it creates jobs by limiting the amount of time employees are allowed to work, thereby encouraging companies to take on more staff.

Critics say it is an inflexible law that hampers business and creates a bloated workforce in the country.

French authorities scrambled to contain the fall-out from the interview.

The office of Prime Minister Manuel Valls told AFP the government "will respect" the 35-hour legislation.

"The organisation of working time can already be altered within companies via collective agreements," Valls' office said, pointing out the interview was conducted "well before his appointment as economy minister".

But unions jumped on the comments of the 36-year-old former banker, who was a shock appointment to the economy ministry as Hollande seeks to shore up a more pro-business policy.

Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, said it was "not a good idea" while the UNSA union dismissed the proposal as "out of the question".

Opposition politicians also leapt on the remarks, with former prime minister Francois Fillon, from the centre-right UMP, saying he would vote "without hesitation" for a change in the 35-hour week.

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