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France's 35-hour week under threat

Should France's 35-hour working week be defended?
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PARIS, France -- French trade unions have called for a day of action next month to oppose government plans to amend the 35-hour working week.

Four of France's five biggest unions said they would march on February 5 in opposition to changes to the law which they say would force employees to work longer hours for the same pay.

The CGT, FO, CFDT and CFTC also said they would urge the government to protect French jobs and salaries, but made no mention of strike action.

"I think that in the days and weeks to come we have an important battle to wage," Francoise Chereque, general secretary of the CFDT, told RTL radio.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin announced on Monday that his conservative Union for a Popular Movement government had drafted a bill to reform France's working week.

The bill is due to be discussed by the French parliament next month with a vote by lawmakers later in the year.

Critics of the 35-hour week, which was introduced by a Socialist-led government in 1998, believe labor restrictions need to be relaxed to allow companies to negotiate their own working arrangements directly with their employees.

In December Raffarin said reform would allow companies to arrange their own overtime deals with staff up to the European Union 48-hour working week limit.

Limits on overtime would also be removed and workers would be able to convert holiday time earned in exchange for extra hours into cash payments, or put it towards sabbatical leave, training or early retirement.

The government hopes those measures will stimulate economic growth, discourage companies from outsourcing French jobs overseas and help cut the country's 9.9 percent unemployment rate -- well above the Euro zone average.

Last year workers at several French companies followed the example of some of their German colleagues by agreeing to work longer hours without extra pay in an effort to save their jobs.

"This relaxing (of the rules) is absolutely essential," French finance minister Herve Gaymard said at the weekend.

But union leaders argue that the new bill would force employees to work longer hours without adequate compensation, particularly those working for smaller employers.

"The government wants to send workers on a fool's errand by trying to make them believe they can earn more by working more," said Chereque. "But we know this is an illusion."

Raffarin, who must steer his government through a referendum on the European Union constitution later this year, already faces several strikes next week with railway staff, post office workers, energy workers and teachers all protesting against job cuts, reforms or working conditions.

Political analysts say Raffarin's failure to win public support for his economic reforms could damage the campaign for a "yes" vote, backed by both French president Jacques Chirac and the government.

Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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