35-Hour Work Week Becomes Law

photo: metro jussieu

There are always a lot of students near métro Jussieu.

Is Your Fridge Poisoned?

Paris:- Sunday, 16. January 2000:- On Friday, France's Constitutional Council gave the green light to the government's proposal to make the 35-hour work week the law of the land. This will permit the law to go into effect on Tuesday, 1. February.

However, the Constitutional Council did not give the project a grade of 'A.' It has required the government to reformulate four 'minor' elements, one of which could be tricky.

This is too complicated for me to understand - so it is enough to say that the measure will become law in France, with only a month's delay from the target date of 1. January.

Only 26,000 enterprises have signed up for the deal, still leaving companies employing 80 percent of French workers to get in line.

A government proposal to levy a surtax of 10 percent on overtime - which was destined tophoto: soldes, corsets de paris lower the cost of social charges paid by employers, was rejected by the Constitutional Council. The report doesn't say who was going to pay this tax - which means trying to understand it difficult.

The winter sales started yesterday - even for smaller shops.

One of the big wrangles has been about the minimum wage - called the 'SMIC' in France. In effect, by cutting the work-week by four hours while keeping the same level for the 'SMIC,' it would have amounted to a raise - who was to pay for this became a stumbling block.

Government minister Martine Aubry, author of the bill, was happy with the result. Oddly, so was the employer's association, which thinks the re-write of the four items, is a government defeat.

Union spokesmen applauded the new law, with reservations. In fact, everybody has reservations except Martine Aubry. Cutting the official work week from 39 hours to 35 is a big change, with many consequences for everybody.

As is normal in France, the whole law is riddled with 'exceptions.' Thirty-five hours is easy to remember, but all of its details remain hazy - to me.

The purpose of the law is supposed to be 'social' as well as reduce unemployment But it may perversely strengthen the trend to part-time work for part-time pay - thus forcing many to take multiple jobs.

How people can be expected to do this when the unemployment rate is about 10 percent, remains another mystery. The end effect may be to institute the minimum wage - of about $1000 a month - as the de facto standard wage.

The truck drivers in the following item are a good example of the headaches the new law will cause. Most long-haul truck drivers get the minimum wage as a base salary and make their real money with overtime.

The Trucker's 35-Hour Work Week

Many mid- and high-level civil servants work more than the legal 39 hours, which is a lot more than the coming 'legal' 35 hours. This means that if the government itself is going to conform to its own laws, it is going to have to do a bit of 'arranging' with its employees.

Private enterprise is wrestling with the same problem. Managers work even more than civil servants. Overall, some firms have successfully adopted the measure of the 35-hour work week. One sector hasn't - the trucking industry.

On Monday and Tuesday, trucking firm owners ordered their drivers to blockade all of France's frontiers - to protest against the 35-hour law and a hike in the price of diesel fuel on Tuesday.

Some 2000 big French trucks blocked entry in France to truckers from all surrounding countries with about 50 roadblocks. They also blockaded seaports.

The action was continued Tuesday because there was no 'sign' from the government, other than the transport minister saying his 'door was open.'

British truck owners appealed to the French government to reestablish 'free circulation.'The European Community also asked the government to 'explain' what it was doing to assure freephoto: velosolex circulation, giving a two-day time limit for the answer.

Earlier, spokesmen for the trucking operators said their action would be largely symbolic - largely to alert the government to the peculiarities of road-haul operations in Europe.

A Vélosolex, midway between a bicycle and a power-mower.

Almost as if programmed, the trucking operators reached an agreement with the government on Wednesday and the blockades disappeared on Thursday.

Banking Employees Get Sweet-and-Sour Deal

In the banking sector, an agreement was reached after 18 months of negotiations, between employers and unions representing employees, for a new industry-wide contract. The old one, based on a 1952 model, expired at the end of last year.

Banking employees have enjoyed special perks that are uncommon for most workers. Their employers, facing the 35-hour week law and 'globalization,' wanted to see deep cuts, or even elimination of the notion of the old contract. In the end, both sides won some and lost some.

Our Secret Fat Cats

France's civil service does not know how many people work for it. It doesn't even know how much it pays some of them. This was reported by the budget watchdog - the 'Cour des Comptes' - on Monday, for the first time in half a century.

The 500 page report, presented by Pierre Joxe, president of the 'Cour,' basically says the state bases salaries on a system of voodoo; unequal and transparent as mud. In fact, this situation was reported earlier, in 1983, but the report was 'filed' on a dusty shelf.

The present salary system, created after the war - to be equal and transparent - has suffered from all the 'exceptions' added to it in layers, and time has cemented them into common usage.

There are a little less than 300,000 budgeted administrative civil servants. The Assembly National voted to reduce the numbers by nearly 50,000 from 1995 to 1998, but there was an actual increase of 24,000. This new 'Cour des Comptes' report estimates that 340,000 are on the government payroll.

This includes government CNRS researchers, but not postal employees.

One Minister of Finance, on taking office asked for a list of the 250 top salaries within his ministry. He repeated the request 10 times in six months, until he received a list on paper that couldn't be photocopied.

For many, their salaries are augmented by 'bonuses,' which can amount to percentages varying between 15 and 70 percent. There are 162 different 'exceptions,' and the 15 percent is nearly general.

Finance Ministry functionaries - 180,000 salaries - receive a bonus for 'technicité' - on account of the 'technical' - calculation - nature of their work.

Some Finance Ministry functionaries also do something not permitted by taxpayers - they are not required to report some of their bonuses as income, subject to revenue tax

A senior civil servant in the tax collection service is paid 48,000 francs net a month, and nearly 25,000 of this is a 'bonus.' 'Net' salary in France is usually two-thirds of gross salary.

In total, the salaries and pensions of state functionaries gobble up 38.2 percent of the entire budget. For the coming budget, the government wants to include one billion francs worth of unbudgeted 'bonuses' that don't officially exist.

Poison Food In the Frigo

After all of our 'mad cows' and dioxin-chickens, now we suddenly have to be on guard against 'listeria' in rillettes and pork tongues. An uproar was set off last week when six were afflicted and two died.

The contaminated products were quickly traced to one manufacturer, and the batch numberphoto: orchestra in metro, photo a salmona was broadcast on TV-news and printed in newspapers. All of the products, under a variety of brand names, were taken off retail shelves throughout Europe.

A mini-symphony at Châtelet, playing Morzart's 40th. Photo: Annie Salmona©2000

This episode is not yet over, because the incubation period is up to two months. In 1992 an outbreak of listeria caused 63 deaths in France. Since 1987, the number of deaths from listeria have been cut by 66 percent.

The company incriminated - already under suspicion - is pointing at the whole food-chain, and specifically at the chain of refrigeration.

This is a good thing to blame because it involves so many actors and variables. Pinpointing the exact location of failure in this train of transport and storage is nearly impossible, and at the end of it the consumer can be fairly blamed.

Another finger can be pointed at the recent power outages caused by the big storms. In many places, portable emergency power was first set up to provide electric current to deep-freeze units.

This listeria scare needs to be put into a perspective of food distribution in France. What has been incriminated is industrial-food manufacture and distribution - from food-factory to refrigerated trucks, to refrigerated central warehouses, back to refrigerated trucks, to the cool shelves in supermarkets.

Like a lot of people, I don't buy frozen food; but I do buy butter and yogi from the cool shelves in supermarkets. Most of the rest, I get at the local street marché.

No matter how strictly controlled these may be, you can see a hundred possibilities for contamination. Edible foodstuffs are put out in the open air, and what remains unsold goes back in the stall operator's truck. How many times does this happen?

The ham I buy at the marché has no 'good until' sticker on it. Nor does the cheese. If there is anything weak in the 'cool-chain,' the open-air street marchés are it. Especially in summer.

In 24 years of more or less steady shopping at street marchés, I have never been killed because of listeria. I think most people who live in France build up an immunity to it.

Worst Outbreak of Flu In Ten Years

Between two and three million residents in France have been stricken by this year's version of 'Asian flu' - which is called the 'Australian virus' by Le Parisien. Records are being set in Champagne-Ardennes and in the Ile-de-France.

This epidemic is not exclusive to France. In Britain and Italy, two million are ill in each country, and more than a million are in bed in Holland. The vaccine against it - mainly for older people - is only 80 percent successful.

Doctors suspect there is a second virus this year, and this is why the rate of infection in France is higher than in neighboring countries. Since this makes no sense, the other reason could be the presence of 'fake flu,' which is not flu, but acts a bit like it.

[Paris]-Dakar-Cairo Takes Off

Responding to terrorist alerts from French and American spy agencies, the organizers of this year's African rallye, the 'Dakar-Cairo' decided to hop over Niger instead of racing through it.

This has caused much dismay in Niger and especially in Agadès - which is spelled 'Agadez' in Le Parisien. Local merchants had a years-worth of goods ready to sell to visitors there for the rallye - practically the only time therephoto: cafe-resto le numide are any visitors. This would have been the rallye's first visit to Agadès.

The rallye halted at the end of its sixth stage in Niamey, Niger's capital, and the four stages planned for Niger have been canceled.

A quiet café-restaurant, in a quiet part of Paris.

At a cost of 30 million francs, the rallye's organizers chartered three Antonov 124 jumbo-freighters to carry the organization and the competitors to Sabah in Libya, where there is a long-enough runway.

The three Antonov's have to haul 150 cars, 64 trucks, 144 motorcycles and eight helicopters; which will take about 18 round-trips. Having fuel for the jumbo aircraft at both locations is a problem.

The rallye's other 22 aircraft will fly to Waw-al-Kebir in Libya, with perhaps a modest Boeing charted to carry the 1365 other people associated with the rallye. Another problem is setting up bases in advance in Libya, but the whole gang should be there by tomorrow.

French Life Online

Shorties: I haven't mentioned Montmartre yet this year on account of the New Years parade being on the Grandes Boulevards, so this is a good moment to remind you about Montmartre's own Paris.18. The site has pepped itself up with the inclusion of a monthly dose of local information, in addition to its maps and history.

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