Across the world, the 35-hour week is emblematic of the French attitude to the work-life balance.
In Britain, it is often depicted as a policy for the work-shy, and figures such as renowned French expatriate chef Raymond Blanc have publicly stated that the law has “made people lazy”.
In fact it is a myth that the French working week limits people to working a maximum 35 hours.
Instead, 35 hours is a threshold beyond which employers are required by law to make provision for paid overtime (majorisations) or time off in lieu (RTT). The legal upper limit for hours worked per week is much higher than 35 hours: the law envisages up to 48 hours per week, or up to 60 in exceptional cases, with the proviso that this upper limit is not attained for more than 12 consecutive weeks.
Exceptions drafted into the law mean that French employers have considerable flexibility in applying working time rules. If, for example, you are employed at managerial, or cadre, level, your working week is expected always to exceed 35 hours, and you may be given your full allocation of RTT in advance in acknowledgement of this fact.
All of these factors have a bearing on European statistics, which show that the average French working week was 40.5 hours in 2014, an hour less than the European-wide average of 41.5 hours, over two hours less than the UK average of 42.9, but still more than five hours longer than the statutory 35 hours.
The critical difference between France and the other countries surveyed is, of course, that the average French worker is compensated for every hour worked above 35 each week.
Agnès Troublé introduced the 35-hour working week at her company, fashion house agnès b., in March 1999, three years before French law made it compulsory. Despite pressure on the French government from business to increase the length of the statutory working week, Agnès remains a staunch advocate of the policy, originally brought in under socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. “If the law changed, I would remain as I am,” she said, without the tiniest flicker of hesitation.
The public debate about the 35-hour working week inevitably focuses on issues of productivity and competitiveness, with the occasional nod to the reputation of the French abroad. This is not the language employed by Agnès however, who says simply of her motivation that “I have always wanted people to be happy within my company”.
Has it worked?
“Everyone is very happy,” she said, “and I am wholly against any change to that”.
At agnès b, personal choice is key. Employees in the company choose whether or not to work more than 35 hours each week and, when they do so, choose whether to be compensated financially, with time off in lieu, or by a mixture of the two. Part-time hours are also facilitated.
“I have lots of employees who do not work on a Wednesday,” Agnès said “because they have children to look after on that day. I have five children myself, and I know what it’s like”.
The intertwining of family and work life is written into the fabric of the company. When she opened her first boutique in an old butcher’s shop at 3 rue de Jour in the Parisian les Halles district, Agnès was a mother of young children, and had an indoor child’s swing installed at the premises, with her children’s pet birds flying around freely.
The “b.” in the company name comes from the first of her three husbands, Christian Bourgois, to whom she was married between the ages of 17 and 20. One of her twin sons by that marriage, Etienne Bourgois, is now director general of the company.
In Agnès’s own life, then, work is not something that has ever been kept apart from leisure and pleasure. Now in her mid-seventies, she laughs away all suggestion that she herself might down tools after 35 hours.
“I work a great deal longer than that,” she laughs, “but I have always worked like that, and it is my choice”.
Given her own work ethic, does Agnès resent paying extra for hours others have worked above 35 each week?
“You have to pay people for their work,” she says: “that’s just normal”.
So far Agnès has told me about why her 35-hour policy is good for her employees. Other employers grumble about how bad the 35-hour week is for business, so I am interested to hear her take on it as chief executive of a global brand. As ever, the answer is disarmingly straightforward.
“When people are happy in their work, they are motivated and loyal, and that is good for business,” she says.
What about costs, though?
“Ah, this is France,” she laughs. She says that the high cost of employment for French companies comes down to two factors.
“Firstly, there are far too many charges on business,” she said. “If charges could be lowered, so much the better, but in the meantime we can’t take it out on our employees.”
The second factor, possibly the source of the high company charges, is, she says, the fact that, as Sarkozy noted, the French public coffers are empty.
“The French,” said Agnès, “wait for everything to come to them from the state. That is not acceptable. People must fight, they must work for themselves, not wait around for handouts”.
Far from being a policy for the lazy, therefore, at agnès b. the 35-hour working week is all about flexibility for those who have the basic drive to work to earn their own living. It facilitates people working 10-hour days, like Agnès herself, just as readily as it facilitates working mothers needing to restrict their hours.
It is this same flexibility that Agnès demands of the government.
“The law should not oblige companies to stick to a certain number of working hours per week. That has to stop. It costs too much for business”. Instead, she once again advocates choice.
“I do what is best for my own business,” she says, “and that happens to be the 35-hour working week”.
She has limited time for anyone seeking to impose working conditions top-down, and that includes the notoriously powerful French unions.
“Perhaps it’s a bad thing to say,” she observes, “but I don’t think they’re very realistic in their demands”. She professes not to know whether or not her own staff are unionised.
The pursuit of employee happiness is not restricted to working hours at agnès b. The company is supportive of individual development, whatever direction that might take.
“Agnès says that she has a low staff turnover but “when people want to change jobs, we encourage them: I often give people my personal support in these situations”.
She also points to a diverse employee profile “the people that work in the company come from all over the world,” she says: “it’s enriching for all of us”. Gender balance on the payroll is “close to fifty, fifty” and working parents are freely accommodated.
Whilst 35-hour weeks may be possible in France, they are unthinkable in some of the other countries where agnès b. has a presence.
Does she have any ambitions to export the policy around the globe? She laughs: “I can’t see that happening in Japan, can you? No, for the moment it gives me ample pleasure just to see some of my quality French-made fabrics being admired and worn in China”.