After seven years of rising unemployment, economic stagnation, and general malaise, French socialists’ war against self-determinism ended in defeat last week when France’s parliament rescinded a law that made it a crime to work more than 35 hours a week.
Essentially a lunatic scheme to create wealth sans labor, the law instituted a de facto lowest-common-denominator egalitarian society by shackling anyone with motivation to a sinking raft of bureaucrats and the lazy. In a sort of fiscal policy version of the Maginot Line, French socialists had argued that legally limiting the number of work hours would force companies to create millions of new jobs.
The actual effect was almost the exact opposite: French companies increasingly moved operations into Eastern European countries, where the work ethic has taken on new life since the fall of Communism. Necessary foreign capital from the United States and elsewhere dried up because, in the words of French International Investment Agency head Clara Gaymard, “The perception was that the French didn’t want to work anymore.” Unemployment consistently topped ten percent.
The law took on a Darwinian/progressive air when a 2003 heat wave killed 15,000 elderly French men and women while their families were on vacation and medical personnel were restricted from working overtime — even to save lives.
Despite all this, nearly a million protesters turned out earlier this month to rail against the proposed hour changes. Unions went on strike, grinding parts of Paris to a halt. French socialist and communist lawmakers introduced more than 130 amendments to block or water down the repeal’s reforms. A French woman told an Associated Press reporter moonlighting as a cheerleader — he gushingly described the law as “a remarkable piece of social engineering” — that she enjoyed her weekdays at the movies and museums so much she might quit her job as a loan company manager rather than work more hours. A socialist lawmaker, Alain Vidalies, described the reform apocalyptically as “economically absurd and socially unjust.”
One has to wonder what sort of state the French psyche is in when the government has to contrive a media blitz, as Jacques Chirac’s crack press department did in advance of the vote, entitled, “Work More to Earn More.” Yet, sometimes logic is not enough to trump the sense of entitlement that a welfare state breeds.
“To make us believe that workers will be able to work more to earn more is a lie,” a spokesman for the CFDT trade union, FranÃ§ois Chereque, inexplicably told BFM radio, while former French Socialist labor minister Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour law, had a public meltdown hysterically claiming that repeal would destroy 50 years of social progress.
NEVERTHELESS, THIS SHOULDN’T BE a debate on the merits or failings of either the free market or command economies. The real question is what should be the role of government in the working lives of individuals in a free society? After all, forcibly limiting individuals from doing whatever they choose with their lives, including setting their own working hours, is authoritarian on its face.
As the former French Industry Minister Alain Madelin has noted, such a law is “an attack on the freedom to work.”
“What right does the state have to prevent someone who wants to work more and earn more from doing just that?” Madelin asked recently in a Mises Institute article.
If the French socialists and bureaucrats marching in the streets want to live out a utopian fantasy, let them find 35-hour-a-week jobs without of imposing them on everyone else. Not everyone wants a share in your collective, comrade. Strange as it may seem, some people find as much fulfillment in a career as others do from being wine drunk at a museum on a Monday morning in Paris. We should be free to choose, as Milton Friedman said.
With an aging population weighing down entitlements and low rates of economic growth — less than 2 percent on average for more than a decade — the status quo has become untenable.
“French are working less than others, 1,561 hours a year, or 20 percent less than Americans,” Sylvain Charat, director of Policy Studies for the French think tank Eurolibnetwork pointed out in a Tech Central Station article last September. “Furthermore not enough French are at work: 61 percent compared to 72 percent in the United States. And finally French work costs are 20 percent higher than the European Union average before enlargement, and 40 percent higher than the United States.”
THE FRENCH ABOLITION MAY create a domino effect. It is sure at the very least to give a boost to German leader Gerhard Schroeder’s official blueprint for ending his country’s economic doldrums, Agenda 2010, which likewise proposes an end to the 35-hour work week.
So is it off to the salt mines for the poor people of Europe now? Hardly. The country remains a signatory to the European Union’s Working Time Directive entitling workers to a work week ceiling of 48 hours, a minimum of one day off per week, and an annual paid holiday of four weeks.
Still, even these EU restrictions may be unworkable in any practical sense. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Ireland are all seeking “opt outs” for health care workers, while Luxembourg wants one for hotel workers.
Surely, what with pride Europeans take in their Workers’ Paradises, it will be some time before we hear the end of the bellyaching over repeal of the 35-hour week. But it’s about time so-called progressives were forced out of their self-righteous fog long enough to see that workers’ rights include the right to work.