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French people still work less than other Europeans

France is second only to Finland as the EU country that works the fewest hours per year 

A view of a man sitting on a deckchair overlooking a view of high snowy mountains in France

The Aubry laws (lois Aubry) imposed the 35-hour working week in France during 1998 to 2000 Pic: Difught / Shutterstock

People in France still work a lot less than other Europeans, at 1,668 hours per year - making it second-lowest only to Finland, and far under the European average of 1,792, a new study suggests.

The figures come from a new study by economic research firm Rexecode, and was based on data from Eurostat's most recent Labour Force Survey.

It found that France’s number of ‘effective working hours’ was lower than 25 of the 27 EU member states, including:

  • Spain: 1,733 (65 hours more than France, 59 fewer than the European average) 

  • Germany: 1,790 (122 hours more than France, two fewer than the European average)

  • Italy: 1,830 (162 hours more than France, 38 hours more than the European average)

Of the 27 member states, only those in Finland worked less than those in France, at 1,640 hours per year.

Olivier Redoules, Director of Research at Rexecode, wrote in the report: “The effective working time of full-time employees in France has been below the European average and that of its main neighbours since the early 2000s.

“The gap [between France and neighbours] has been fairly stable since 2005, with the exception of Germany, where the annual duration of effective working hours fell between 2006 and 2019. It still remained well above the duration in France.”

The study shows that all sectors are affected.

How does France compare to other EU countries?

The country with the highest number of hours worked was Romania, at 2,043 per year, the study shows.

Geographically, the northern European countries tend to work fewer hours (with France as an outlier), and the eastern European states work more. Southern and mid-European countries tend to be more in the middle (except for France…).

  • Sweden: 1,672

  • Netherlands: 1,696

  • Belgium: 1,700

  • Denmark: 1,714

In contrast:

  • Lithuania: 1,858

  • Hungary: 1,869

  • Latvia: 1,900

  • Poland: 1,921

  • Bulgaria: 1,998

Cyprus and Greece also buck the trend, as - despite being southern European nations - they work almost as much as eastern Europe, at 1,896 and 1,943 hours per year respectively.

The 35-hour working week

France has long had a reputation of not working many hours, particularly due to the Aubry laws (lois Aubry), which imposed the 35-hour working week (seven hours per day, if working five days a week) over the course of two years from 1998 to 2000. This was partly to encourage job sharing and reduce the then-record unemployment rate.

This regulation had a significant effect: in 1999, data showed that people in France worked around 1,950 hours per year. By 2005, this had dropped to less than 1,700. 

During the same period, other European countries also reduced their working hours, but much less rapidly. For example, over the same five-year period, Spain reduced its working hours from 2,000 to 1,900 per year.

Successive governments in France have hailed the 35-hour week as successful, because the country still maintained high productivity in comparison to its EU neighbours, despite the fewer working hours.

However, since the Covid crisis, this is no longer true; productivity growth has declined, prompting the government to see working hours - once again - as a political issue.

President Macron has repeatedly described the 35-hour week as “too rigid” and called for people to work more hours, especially in under-tension sectors.

He has said: “In comparison to others, we are a country that works less than other countries…People in France work a lot less than our neighbours. We enter the work market later [in life], retire earlier and work less during the year.”

Is this really accurate?

Studies by Rexecode have repeatedly found France to be near the bottom of the table when it comes to working hours, but critics say that these figures do not take into account part-time workers or the self-employed. 

This makes a significant difference, says the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development which includes part-time employees (but not the self-employed) in its figures. These put France ahead of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands on working hours (although still on the lower end of all 27 member states).

In 2019 the EU’s statistics office, Eurostat, estimated that French employees worked, on average, 37.3 hours a week - more than 35-hour limit, more than the European average of 37.1 hours; and more than workers in the UK (36.5 hours), Germany (34.9 hours) and the Netherlands (30.4 hours).

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