PARIS (Reuters) — France's new pro-business Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron ran into trouble with trade unions on Thursday for suggesting companies could be allowed exemptions to France's 35-hour week.
Introduced by a previous Socialist-led government in 2000 in a bid to redistribute work and create jobs, the 35-hour week is fiercely protected by the French left — despite the fact that many French in reality work much longer hours than that.
"We could authorize companies and sectors, provided there is a majority (union) agreement on this, to have exceptions to the rules on working time and remuneration," he said in an interview with weekly Le Point magazine.
Such tweaks to the existing system would work, Macron said, because they "(do) not have a deflationary impact and could restore confidence".
The former investment banker's comments were made before his appointment on Tuesday, and the government was quick to stamp out speculation there could be a change in the law.
"The government has no intention of going back on the legal length of the working week," said a statement from the office of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, which made clear companies are already allowed some flexibility within the overall framework.
But Macron's words drew immediate criticism from Laurent Berger, head of France's moderate CFDT trade union, who insisted the new member of the government had "made a mistake".
"It's out of the question. The subject is closed," he told i>Tele television.
President Francois Hollande's government has introduced modest reforms to the labour market but has stayed well clear of changing the 35-hour working week.
His government has suggested new reforms could be envisaged, for example in adapting costly requirements on companies to set up worker councils.
Thursday's government statement said Macron's suggestions were referring to ongoing discussions at that level "and the government will respect that social dialogue."
Macron, a 36-year-old former presidential adviser, replaced leftist Arnaud Montebourg as economy minister in a government reshuffle this week, to the consternation of many on the left wing of the Socialist Party.
Former prime minister Francois Fillon of the centre-right UMP party, meanwhile, welcomed Macron's suggestion as being "exactly" in line with his own thoughts on the issue.
Montebourg was pushed out of office by President Francois Hollande for his outspoken opposition to public spending cuts aimed at bringing France's public deficit down within EU limits.