updated 2/9/2005 5:48:00 PM ET 2005-02-09T22:48:00

The long vacations and 35-hour workweeks French workers enjoy could be falling by the wayside. After a vitriolic debate, lawmakers approved a bill on Wednesday that would allow employees to work more.

France’s lower house of parliament voted 370-180 on the measure to permit private sector employees to work up to 48 hours each week — the European Union limit.

The measure now goes to the Senate for debate early next month. There is likely to be little problem in getting it passed. President Jacques Chirac’s conservatives, which are pushing for the changes, control both houses of parliament.

Supporters say the reform would lighten a burden for companies and state finances, and allow workers to earn more money. Chirac has criticized the 35-hour workweek as a “brake” on economic development and job creation.

The new measure would not formally dismantle the 35-hour workweek but would make it more flexible by giving workers the option of working more — on a voluntary basis.

35-hour week meant to ease unemployment
The shortened 35-hour workweek was put in place between 1998 and 2000 by the previous Socialist government, which touted the reform as a social breakthrough. Opponents of the new measure contend that the shortened workweek would be effectively destroyed.

The vote went ahead despite stalling tactics by the Socialist-led opposition and a campaign of protests against the bill. More than 300,000 people marched in towns across France on Saturday to denounce the bill.

The Socialists had instigated the 35-hour workweek — down from 39 hours— as a means of reducing soaring unemployment. The idea was that companies would hire more employees to compensate. But France still has an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent.

Chirac’s former finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said the 35-hour week would cost the French state 10 billion euros ($13 billion) this year.

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