Understand the 35 hour working week

France is famous for its short working week - les 35-heures - but the rules are not as simple as they sound

France is famous for its short working week - les 35-heures - but the rules are not as simple as they sound and most people do not, in fact, work just 35 hours...

FRANCE’S 35-hour working week raises heated debate both for and against the idea – even if statistics show that most people do not in fact work just 35 hours.

Brought in by the Socialist Jospin government in laws in 1998 and 2000, raising the limit again is controversial. On the one hand it could be seen as good for productivity, on the other it risks being seen as socially regressive and potentially likely to dissuade firms from taking on more staff.

Some history

A working week of 40 hours was fixed in 1936 then tweaked to 39 in 1982. It officially dropped to 35 in 2002. This was presented as good for workers’ rights and also job creation by sharing work around more people. The reduction to 35 hours was first proposed in a 1997 Socialist Party manifesto.

What the law says

The basic legal length of the working week is 35 hours a week, or 1,607 hours a year.

There can be overtime (heures supplémentaires) but there are legal maximums to that, so that a working day may not be more than 10 hours and a working week 48 (or 60 in “exceptional circumstances”).
This is also subject to a limit of 44 hours a week on average over a 12-week period (or 46 under certain conditions).

Legally, there must also be breaks of at least 20 minutes at least every six hours and 11 hours of consecutive daily rest plus 24 hours’ rest per week.
Lesser periods apply to people under 18, who may not usually, without special permission, work more than the basic working week.

These rules apply to private sector workers and some public sector ones (nonetheless a 35-hour week rule is the norm in both sectors). Certain sectors have slightly longer periods deemed equivalent, taking into account a certain amount of down time with little to do (eg. working as a greengrocer).


Certain groups are exempt from the working hours limits, including childminders and people who work in the home, as well as, notably, cadres dirigeants, that is top-level management. The latter are defined as people with a lot of freedom in organising their work time and in decision-making and who are among the highest-paid people in a firm.

They may be entitled to paid holiday, like other staff, but have no maximum work times, minimum rest periods, or even requirement to take off bank holidays.

Working conditions agreements

Businesses may choose that all staff will simply work 35 hours a week. Otherwise, working beyond the maximum legal hours generally gives rise to overtime at a higher pay or time off in lieu called RTT (réduction du temps de travail), depending on agreed practices in the workplace (the accord collectif).

Again, depending on the workplace rules, the RTT or overtime rights may accrue simply on a week by week basis each time hours worked exceed 35 hours, or they may be based on how many hours were worked a week (averaged out) over longer periods. In certain agreements there can also be set maximum hours per week after which hours worked are automatically consider to be overtime.


Overtime is subject to an annual cap, called the contingent annuel, either stipulated in the working conditions agreement or at a set 220 hours a year. Hours worked over and above the contingent give rise to both extra pay and to time off in lieu which should be equal to half the extra time worked in small firms and all of it in ones with 20 employees or more.

The Code du Travail fixes overtime pay at 25% more for the first eight hours and 50% more after that, though this can vary slightly depending on the accord collectif.

Overtime can imply hours worked at the express wish of the employer or even with their “implied agreement”.

Time off in lieu

There are two kinds – compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay (called RTT – réduction du temps de travail) and “complimentary” time off given for work beyond the “annual contingent”.

Extra working days for which there is compensatory time off are no longer considered “overtime” ones for purposes of the annual contingent calculation.

These compensatory RTT days (or half days) are equivalent to paid holiday, eg. an hour of overtime pay that would have been at 150% of the ordinary pay can be replaced by one and a half hours of time off.

If the employer wants staff to work more than 35 hours a week on a regular basis there may be a set regime in terms of when RTT days are taken (such as, for example, a certain day every week). Sometimes a superviser may ask an employee to take a certain day as RTT, if the accord collectif allows this. A situation where an employee asks for a specific day off due to RTT rights accrued, is known as poser un RTT (to claim an RTT).

RTT days may be calculated according to different methods. “Real” methods take account of actual hours built up beyond 35 a week; “fixed amount” (forfait) ones involve a set number of days to be “claimed” per year.

In general, if an employee “claims” a day, the employer replies within a week, and will agree unless the suggested day is impractical.

Employees on a forfait annuel

Certain employees, instead of having a contract based on a set number of hours per week, have one based on a fixed number of hours or days per year, called a forfait annuel (en heures or en jours), which factor in the fact they will almost inevitably work more than 35 hours a week.

This is notably the case for certain senior cadres (managers), whose roles require a lot of flexibility. They are not concerned by the contingent annuel and are not systematically compensated by overtime or RTT in the same way as other workers are meant to be. Ones on a forfait en jours, notably, have no limits to hours per day they can work (apart from the laws on rest periods) and do not earn overtime pay.

A fixed allowance of RTT days is factored into their year (on top of paid holidays, weekends, bank holidays etc) as partial compensation, and they have higher salaries.

How many hours do people really work?

Figures from Eurostat (a service of the European Commission) for 2013 show the average number of weekly hours worked in France in 2013 was 40.7, compared to, for example, 42.8 in the UK or 41.7 in Germany. The EU average was 41.5.

A study by a Work Ministry statistics body DARES, found that in 2011 manual workers did on average 38 hours a week, other “workers” 38.3 and managers 44.1.

Does it harm France’s productivity?

Apparently not - Eurostat puts worker productivity at €45.60/worker (GDP produced per hour) in 2013 – the EU’s fifth highest (the higher the figure, the more productive the country is deemed to be) . This compares to an EU average of €32.10. Germany was €42.80 and the UK, €39.20.

Will it change?

Removing the 35-hours is brought up from time to time, but there are no specific plans. Nonetheless, a recent Figaro reader poll found that (out of 26,000 participants), 86% were in favour of scrapping it.

A left-wing party Nouvelle Donne (New Deal) recommends an even shorter week - 32 hours, or four eight-hour days - as “the best way to fight unemployment and inequalities”.

Taking an opposite view, the director of the economics think-tank CREST, Francis Kramarz, recently said going back to a 39-hour week - paid the same as the current 35 - would be “a real shot in the arm to productivity which would give a new lease of life to many businesses that are struggling today”.

Another think-tank, Institut Montaigne, suggests allowing firms to raise the level to 40 hours, but advises workers be compensated by making hours worked above 35 tax-free.

The Front National’s Marine Le Pen has stated she backs a gradual end to the policy, but said it should not be done too “brutally” because “we can’t do it while we have mass unemployment”.


FASHION designer Agnès B. (left) bucked the trend by leaping to the defence of the 35 heures in 2011 when changes to the rules were proposed.

She said all her staff including managers worked to the 35-hour rules and had done since 1999, a year before they became obligatory.

They helped employees’ wellbeing and therefore productivity and a change would cause “frustration and demotivation,” she said, saying the rules were flexible enough to suit the fashion business.

Photo: Patric Swirc