updated 7/24/2008 11:13:40 AM ET 2008-07-24T15:13:40

French lawmakers took a step toward ending the country's decade-long experiment with a 35-hour workweek, passing a bill that gives companies greater latitude to extend working hours.

The new law, approved late Wednesday, retains the legal limit on working hours but allows companies to negotiate opt-outs with employees. It also lets companies increase the maximum number of working days for white-collar workers to 235 per year from 218 currently.

"In theory it's the end of the 35-hour workweek, but in practice it will take a while longer," said Marc Touati, head of economic research at Paris-based brokerage Global Equities.

Since the new hours are to be negotiated on a company-by-company basis, "you can't expect it to have a strong impact on French growth" in the short term, he said.

Reforming the 35-hour law was one of President Nicolas Sarkozy's headline pledges during last year's presidential campaign. Sarkozy says the 35-hour law was an economic mistake that did not create jobs as it was intended to do, but he has promised not to abolish it outright.

Wednesday's move was the latest rollback to the controversial work-share scheme introduced by a Socialist government 10 years ago. Successive conservative governments have already chipped away at it.

Waving banners with slogans like "There is life after work" and "I refuse to give my life to shareholders," members of two white collar unions protested the new law Wednesday in Paris.

"If I'm forced to work 235 days, my personal life will suffer," said demonstrator Arnaud de la Bergerie, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer. "We'll have more pay but less time to spend our salary."

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