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Free Market Project

3/7/2006 12:44:19 AM

Updated 02/24/06

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Couric, CBS Morning News touted France’s short work week, but will they admit it failed?

By Charles Simpson

     When the French placed a limit on the time workers spend on the job each week, NBC’s Katie Couric was ecstatic and applauded the additional time to shop and rest. Now that the French are rethinking the cap, will Couric admit the plan was a total failure?

     It was the closest thing to labor utopia a worker could wish for: a light work week with a heavy salary. In 1999, that wish became a reality when France’s Socialist government mandated a 35-hour ceiling on the work week. The cap came without any reduction in salary; so employees worked less without earning less. In an August 1, 2001 Today broadcast, Katie Couric claimed, prematurely, “Unemployment is down, the French economy is strong and workers are smiling a lot more these days.” An August 27, 2001 piece by Tom Fenton of CBS Morning News shared that sentiment.

     Five years later, reality has caught up to the French economy. In a requiem for the policy in the February 9, 2005 Wall Street Journal, Andres Cala reported, “France is poised to partially roll back a law capping the workweek at 35 hours to spur its slow-growing economy.” The purpose of the ceiling was to reduce unemployment by forcing employers to hire more workers to cover the lost productivity. That prediction didn’t pan out for the French government or the media.

     American economists said this wouldn’t work and warned of stagnating productivity. However, Katie Couric ridiculed their critique. Couric lead into the piece: “Okay, so how does this sound to you? Shorter working hours, longer holidays and no paycuts? Economists said, 'no way Jose or Josette,' but the French are making it work.”

     Keith Miller followed Couric with a report about French mothers spending more time with their children. He continued: "With more free time workers are rested, productivity is up and what makes it work is flexibility. Employers and employees agree on when it is most efficient to take time off. Sixty percent of those on the job say their lives have improved. These American women, all working in France, have time for lunch and a life." Clearly, Miller’s implication was that the French way is better and that hard working Americans could learn a lesson from French sophisticates.

     Tom Fenton noted: “Whatever the reason, the economy expanded 3.4 percent last year, while the high unemployment rate dropped from 11 percent to 9.5 percent. And since they’re paid the same for working hours, the French are also doing more shopping and spending.”

     Now the French are preparing to roll back this unrealistic labor policy. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the law didn’t have the hoped-for effect. France’s unemployment has remained high - around 10% - and productivity has declined. French executives complain that the rule has damaged the French work ethic.”

     While the ceiling created a lot of tickled French workers and American journalists, it was unrealistic. The Journal stated: “Since the workweek was capped at 35 hours in 1999, France’s productivity per capita has decreased 4.3%... Over the same period, productivity per capita has risen 5% in the United Kingdom and 6% in the U.S.”

     France tried to manipulate the labor market and failed miserably. While economists and policy makers will take this lesson to heart, chances are slim that the
CBS Morning News or Today will issue its own eulogy for the policy.


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