Last April, Claude Imbert, editor in chief of the moderately conservative weekly Le Point, dared to make an astonishing mea culpa.  In a minor masterpiece of melancholic irony, he confessed the awful truth that he was a “liberal”—which, in present-day French parlance, means someone who believes in free enterprise as a necessary antidote to socialistic regimentation.  Alas, he admitted,

in France liberals are not popular.  Here a moderate liberal is called an ultraliberal and stinks of heresy.  The Left, wearing its heart on its sleeve, consigns us to the camp of the heartless.  Its intellectual phalanx denounces us as lackeys of the MEDEF [the French equivalent of Britain’s Confederation of British Industry, or of our National Association of Manufacturing].  The communists—truly the last straw!—lecture us on the course of History, which we don’t, like them, interpret correctly.  As for the official Right, like us it creeps along the walls, it hides us as though we were wanton sons.  It’s enough to make one believe that in every Frenchman there is a Proudhon, a lurking maker of systems.  One who, having retained nothing of the lessons of the past, still dreams of whittling away our creative freedoms.  One who wants to coop us in, in order—with a more “social” hand—to share out revenues and, from now on, work itself.

The proof of it, Imbert concluded, was “l’affaire des 35 heures”—the now sacrosanct 35-hour workweek, which had become a “case history of the mal français”—of the social and economic anchylosis now afflicting France.

If national politics have become increasingly confused and confusing for bewildered French voters, it is in no small part because the traditional lines of cleavage have become blurred, and moderate conservatives no longer dare to be regarded as “right wingers” or to proclaim the “liberal” convictions they are supposed to believe in.  It would be unfair to single out Jean-Pierre Raffarin (France’s prudent, patient, Percheron-plodding prime minister) as a prototypical specimen of this reluctance to sport any kind of conservative colors.  For the supreme example of this kind of political abdication is none other than President Jacques Chirac.  During the press conference he held in the Elysée Palace on Bastille Day, he capitulated to his socialist opponents by casually remarking that the 35-hour workweek was an “acquis social”—a henceforth untouchable “social acquisition.”

The event—more exactly, a “non-event”—that prompted Claude Imbert’s ironic editorial was the quiet burial by Prime Minister Raffarin, acting on orders from President Chirac, of a detailed parliamentary report on “La France des 35 heures,” which seems likely to remain the most exhaustive study yet made of the complex question of the 35-hour workweek, and what it has done to “fragilize” the French economy and to “split” French society.  Established in early October 2003 by two enterprising National Assembly deputies, Patrick Ollier and Hervé Novelli, both members of Jacques Chirac’s majority party, the 29-member “Mission” (which even included one Communist) spent six months interviewing 53 prominent captains of industry, labor leaders, university professors, sociologists, hospital directors, and public-health officials and made seven exploratory trips to various regions of “provincial” France.  Among those cross-examined was, not least of all, Martine Aubry, the former Socialist minister of employment and solidarity who originated the controversial uproar five years ago by decreeing that, from the start of the 21st century on, the new work norm for all wage earners in France would be a working week of 35, instead of 39, hours.

It is impossible, I think, for anyone who is not a rabid socialist to read even the first 30 pages of La France des 35 heures without a feeling of mounting stupefaction.  (The first volume alone runs to 334 pages; the second, including the fascinating verbatim texts of the 53 interviews, to 626 pages of small type.)  For what they reveal is, first of all, the economic naiveté of the former minister of employment and solidarity, and, second, the incredible juggling of handouts and tax benefits which the state—i.e. the Ministry of Finance—has been forced to resort to in order to keep thousands of French enterprises from being bankrupted by the new draconian legislation limiting weekly hours of work.

First, a few basic facts.  What came to be known as the first “loi Aubry” was passed by Lionel Jospin’s Socialist majority in the National Assembly on June 13, 1998, and reinforced by a second on January 19, 2000.  The first law decreed that, from January 1, 2000, the norm for all French enterprises employing more than 20 wage earners would be 35 hours per week and that, from January 2002 onward, this prescription would be applied to all smaller enterprises as well.

Up until 2000, the norm in France was a workweek of 39 hours.  By reducing this statutory level by four hours, Martine Aubry and her Socialist friends reckoned that French enterprises would be forced to hire new workers to maintain their present levels of production—thus creating new jobs and reducing an embarrassingly high level of unemployment.  Since wage earners, forced to work four hours less per week, were certain to yell their heads off in furious protest over the resultant loss of income, they were offered a painless bonanza: They would continue to be paid the same salary as before.  This amounted, in effect, to a windfall pay raise of 11.4 percent.

In terms of political tactics, this was unquestionably a master stroke.  Since there are close to 20 million wage earners in France, compared with some 1.6 million entrepreneurs, Lionel Jospin’s Socialists were bound to win increased popularity with the working masses.  The party was once again fulfilling its historic role—which is at least as old as Jean Jaurès (1859-1911) and the Emile Zola of Germinal (1885)—as the champion of the downtrodden and oppressed against the perennial abuses of their oppressors, the hated as well as heartless patrons (bosses).

This appeal to tradition is anything but accidental.  As Jacques Marseille, an “anarcho-liberal” professor of economic history at the Sorbonne, has often pointed out in books and articles, France’s Socialists today—and, in this, Martine Aubry is typical—are, in reality, reactionaries who have a hopelessly antiquated and “Dickensian” view of present-day conditions in French factories and business offices.  (Among other things, the coal miners of Germinal no longer exist.)

Not unnaturally, the introduction of the statutory 35-hour workweek, remunerated on the previous salary basis of 39 hours, was welcomed by millions of French wage earners, and particularly by women who now found a bit more free time for shopping and other domestic chores.  Not all wage earners, however, were satisfied—beginning with those who, to supplement their incomes, had been working overtime.  A particularly pernicious feature of these new regulations were the restrictions introduced to discourage enterprises from resorting to overtime work, since—according to the simplistic economic logic of Martine Aubry and her friends—someone who works overtime is being favored at the expense of another worker who is presently unemployed.  The level of increase for overtime payments was accordingly fixed at 25 percent of the basic wage for the first eight hours of overtime work, the rate being further raised to 50 percent for each additional hour thereafter.  An overall limit of 130 hours per annum of overtime work was also imposed on all French enterprises, no matter how big or small.  Since the Aubry laws guaranteed all wage earners five weeks annually of paid vacations, this meant that even the humblest patron could not legally ask one of his workers to put in more than three hours of overtime in any average week.

In an authoritative book devoted to the right to work, the eminent economist Jean-Emmanuel Ray wrote that the inevitable result of these overtime restrictions was to introduce a regime of “calamitous” complexity “into such a daily matter.”  This was an understatement.  As my butcher, who has to get up at three o’clock in the morning three days per week to buy his meat cuts at the wholesale market of Rungis, southeast of Paris, recently said to me: “I now have to spend four hours a week filling out papers for the inspecteurs du travail,” who periodically descend on him to make sure that he is not “breaking the law”—in which case, he is fined.  “If I limited myself and my assistants to a 35-hour week, we would all go bankrupt in three days.”

It should have been obvious to Martine Aubry and her Socialist friends that French entrepreneurs, already hamstrung by irksome restrictions concerning a patron’s right to fire an unsatisfactory worker, would not take this new crippling legislation lying down.  Since the state was again declaring war on their freedom of action and was determined to discourage overtime work, many of them agreed to cooperate with the watchdogs of the Inspection du Travail, but in their own way—not by hiring new workers but by asking their employees to work more efficiently in the name of increased “productivity.”

The new 35-hour workweek thus aggravated an already existing entrepreneurial penchant for “non-employment.”  As a recently retired French businessman in the field of sophisticated electronics explained to me one day,

In the United States, an entrepreneur can hire or fire an employee with a minimum of red tape.  This freedom acts as a powerful incentive to employ human beings.  In France, however, the hiring or firing of even a single employee is an incredibly complex, bureaucratic process.  Consequently, whenever we wanted to increase our output of manufactured products, we would spend our time at managerial meetings trying to find ways of not hiring new employees, and instead of investing in even more up-to-date and efficient machinery.  The paradoxical result, since thousands of other entrepreneurs were doing the same thing, is that—believe it or not—the average French worker today has a level of productivity that is as high, if not higher, as that of a worker in America.

Curiously enough, the new 35-hour workweek, with its crippling system of overtime restrictions—a kind of reverse Stakhanovism (“What we need is not more output, but more employment!”)—was soon being criticized by left-wingers who might have been expected to support it.  Speaking with his customary nonconformist frankness, the Socialist deputy Pierre Emmanuelli declared (to the left-wing newspaper Le Monde): “The guy who has lost 100 euros a month in overtime hours couldn’t care less if the Socialists have created 300,000 jobs.”

This low figure was only a slight underestimation.  The three major opinion-poll research institutes that have rigorously examined the consequences of the 35-hour workweek agree that the number of jobs actually created by Martine Aubry’s laws is no more than 350,000, which, in four years of strenuous propaganda and persuasion, is not exactly a national achievement to boast about in a country that continues to suffer an unemployment level of between 8 and 9 percent (as opposed, for example, to around 5.5 percent in Great Britain).

The most pernicious result of the official sanctification of the 35-hour workweek is of a collective-psychological, rather than of a strictly bureaucratic-administrative, order.  It offers, as a fashionable new ethos, encouragement to an increasingly popular search for facility among young French postadolescents who are looking for a job.  Any form of work involving strenuous effort is now instinctively avoided, and the first question a young French job-seeker is likely to ask is, “And how many weeks of paid vacation does this job guarantee me?”

A young French girl I know who decided to fulfill her one day of “civic duty” for her country was dumbfounded to find herself being encouraged by officials to join one of France’s three armed services, with the specific guarantee that, during her years of duty, the sacrosanct 35-hour workweek would be respected!  In early September, a restaurant owner in northern France had to broadcast his desperate appeal for kitchen aides and waiters on a major TV channel after having spent 15,000 euros in advertising without receiving a single reply!  Where manual labor comes to be regarded as a form of personal indignity, that country, clearly, is in very serious trouble.

No one is more acutely aware of these national shortcomings than France’s most dynamic and, for the moment, popular politician, Nicolas Sarkozy, who, last March, was shifted from the Ministry of the Interior to the even more important Ministry of Economy and Finance.  Fearless as ever in his readiness to disagree with his “superiors”—above all, President Jacques Chirac—he lost little time airing his lack of enthusiasm for the 35-hour workweek, declaring, quite simply, that “nothing could be more natural than to want to work more in order to earn more money.”

He followed up by asking Michel Camdessus, the former director general of the International Monetary Fund, to write a report for him on the existing hindrances to French economic growth.  The result was a withering indictment of the 35-hour workweek and its easygoing concomitants—five weeks of paid vacations and early retirement at the age of 55.  A defensively inspired Maginot Line mentality in the field of economics, or what he called a “losing strategy,” had done nothing to reduce the country’s high level of unemployment.  With three simple statistics, he summed up France’s present, as well as the future crisis it is going to face in the difficult years ahead: “If a French wage-earner produces 5% more in an hour of work than an American, he will produce 13% less in a single year, and 36% less during his active lifetime.”