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Backing off a 35-hour workweek

It's being called the coup de grace for France's decadelong experiment with a 35-hour workweek – a policy that inspired both envy and ridicule in Europe and the U.S.

But the short workweek proved difficult to implement and was derided by some as a “straitjacket” on France's economy.

Now a new law lets companies negotiate more hours from employees. But it's being met with resistance, even from the employers it was meant to benefit, suggesting President Nicolas Sarkozy's reform may do little to boost growth.

When France first implemented the 35-hour workweek in 1998, economists wondered: Is this the future of work in the developed world? But instead, the ensuing decade saw rich nations' workers laboring ever more.

Even in France, workers average 41 hours a week, thanks to overtime and those workers, like farmers and the self-employed, who aren't subject to the short week. That's more than Germany or Britain – and not much less than the average 41.7 hours worked in the U.S. in 2006.

Previous efforts to erode France's 35-hour week have been routinely met with protests.

This time, however, workers have put up little fuss because the law went into force during the summer vacation season and it was left up to companies to apply the longer hours. And unions have made it clear they will fight, through strikes or tough negotiations, if companies put it to the test.

When France first experimented with a short workweek, the idea was to force employers to hire more workers, reducing the country's chronically high 10 percent unemployment rate.

A report by French national statistics agency Insee estimated that some 350,000 new jobs were created between 1998 and 2002 thanks to the 35-hour policy.

“But the boom was followed by a bust, with very slow job creation over the ensuing years, so for the whole 10-year period, the net result was zero,” said Nicolas Bouzou, an economist at economic research firm Asteres.

Reforming the 35-hour law was one of Sarkozy's main pledges during last year's presidential campaign, under the slogan: “Work more to earn more.” The new law was approved by lawmakers in late July.

Its economic impact is likely to be minimal, Bouzou said, estimating the whole economic reform package, of which the longer work week is just a part, would add only an additional 0.3 percentage point to economic growth next year.

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