Insight: Making France work again

Sun Dec 9, 2012 4:04am EST
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By Mark John

ECUEILLE, France (Reuters) - Shirt manufacturer Marc Roudeillac was delighted when 48 of the 49 staff in his factory in central France voted to adapt their strict 35-hour week contracts to meet the up-and-down demand of the fashion trade.

Then the labor inspector stepped in and ruled the contracts must not be changed. So Roudeillac began an overtime system with 25 percent hourly bonuses. Again, the seamstresses were happy - until the government this year scrapped tax breaks on overtime.

"Now, no one wants to do overtime anymore - they say it's just not worth their while," Roudeillac said at his Confection du Boischaut Nord (CBN) company in the region of Indre, a two-hour drive south of Paris.

CBN is a small miracle of manufacturing: it is one of the few firms in Indre's once-buoyant local textiles sector to have withstood the onslaught of foreign competition, first from southern Europe, then North Africa and now Asia.

Yet the overtime episode is a telling insight into a France struggling with itself: the France whose appetite for work sits uneasily with the France whose priority is to sustain one of highest standards of living in the world.

In just over 30 years after World War Two, France lifted itself from the ignominy of Nazi occupation into a sleek and modern Group of Seven economy with world-beating industrial champions in sectors such as energy and aerospace.

Its welfare system is among the most generous in the world. A road and rail transport network means its companies are within hours of tens of millions of potential customers. It is a leader in luxury goods and is the world's top tourist destination.

But somehow that Gallic vigour is being lost.   Continued...