Economics serving society

Working time regulation in France from 1996 to 2012

Philippe Askenazy

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France is often presented – both at home and abroad – as a strange country with a “rigid” 35-hour working week. This article looks back at more than 15 years of changes to working hours: Philippe Askenazy draws a portrait very different from this commonplace view, on an institutional level as well as in its social and economic dimensions.
Following the voluntary Robien policy, from 1997 the so-called Aubry laws implemented a programme to reduce working hours according to the then-dominant neo-classical economic theories. The idea was to optimise job creation in the context of the weak growth then forecast for the end of the decade. But strong economic growth between 1998 and 2000 immediately resulted in the collapse of the project to reduce the working week; in 2000, the second Aubry law, modifying the definition of work time, resulted in its further disintegration.
The change of government in 2002 halted the reduction of working hours and even reversed the downward trend in hours worked. In total, between 1995 and the eve of the Great Recession in 2008, the average reduction in working hours in France was hardly greater than in the United States and less than that in Germany. In fact, even if the assessments remain weak, the impact on employment has not been significant. The author explains that the 35-hour week has had consequences in other areas, the process being particularly marked by an emphasis on enterprise bargaining: resulting in an increase in the heterogeneity and flexibility of work conditions, and modifications to the framework of negotiations and industrial relations. Finally, as this article laments, the regulation of working hours appears to have been insufficiently and inadequately studied by economists: the 35-hour week is best seen as a permanent shock if we are to understand better the complex dimensions of the French economy.
Original title of the article: Working time regulation in France from 1996 to 2012
Published in : Cambridge Journal Of Economics, March 2013, Vol. 37, Issue 2, p 323-347.
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