Le weekend gets longer and longer

Afternoon naps and DIY are booming in France with the new 35-hour week. Adam Sage reports

For Patrick Mortet, Friday afternoon used to mean work in an office of a road haulage company in south-west France. Now he winds down for the weekend by riding his motorbike into the pine forests of the Landes departement, or by taking his small motorised boat out on to the Atlantic ocean.

Like millions of his compatriots, Mortet is enjoying the benefits of a government directive imposing a reduction in the maximum working week from 39 to 35 hours without loss of pay. Since February 2000, it has applied to all companies with more than 20 staff, and it will apply to all others from next February. In practice, the hours are often averaged out across the year, resulting in nine weeks of annual leave, or long weekends, or both.

Never before have the French had so much time for leisure. DIY, previously considered a demeaningly Anglo-Saxon activity, is booming. So are short holidays. And so, too, are afternoon naps.

This is not what the working-time legislation was supposed to be about. The Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, saw it as a way of reducing unemployment, which stood at more than three million when he came to power in 1997. He offered tax cuts to firms that took on extra staff to compensate for the shorter week.

Now, with the jobless total down by a third, the ministry of employment claims that its law has been a success, creating 325,000 jobs. This seems a gross exaggeration: the French economy is growing by almost 3 per cent a year, and the vast majority of these jobs would have been created anyway. On the other hand, the critics have not been proved right in their claim that free enterprise would be unduly burdened. Most of the 50,000 firms affected so far say they have managed to accommodate the shorter week by introducing flexible rotas. For example, Philippe Joffard, the chairman of Lafuma, whose 600 employees make sports equipment near Paris, said: "This has enabled us to modulate our working patterns to increase productivity when the demand is there and scale it down when it is not."

So far, therefore, the macroeconomic impact has been limited. But the social impact has not been. According to a recent opinion poll for L'Express magazine, the 35-hour week has given the French an appetite for leisure. More than two-thirds of those interviewed said that their lives had improved as a result of working less, and a clear majority (54 per cent) said that time off was now more important to them than wage rises. As Mortet, who is 45, puts it: "You have to get away from work to live."

Many French citizens have followed Mortet's example of using the extra free time for boating. Last year, boat sales were up 11.4 per cent, and the French Nautical Industries Federation puts it down to the 35-hour week.

Also booming is the DIY market, now worth F100bn a year, which expanded by 4.2 per cent in 2000. Among the new practitioners is Pascal Rancillac, 35, a manager for an insurance group in Paris. "I work nine hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, eight hours on Fridays, and have Wednesdays off," she said. So Wednesday has become home improvement day. "I'm all right on painting and wallpapering and putting up shelves, but I'm trying to change the windows at the moment and it's a bit more difficult," she said, looking at a tray of nuts and bolts in the chic BHV department store in Paris.

If DIY shops have come to appreciate the 35-hour week, so have travel agents, who reported an 11.7 per cent increase in trade last year, largely thanks to a growing trend for taking long-weekend breaks. They say that the old French formula of four weeks off in August and a fifth week at Christmas is disappearing. Instead, families tend to go away several times spread throughout the year. "It is a revolution," said a spokesperson for the International Travel Fair, which took place in Paris in March.

But not everyone is as energetic as Mortet or Rancillac. In the poll for L'Express, 35 per cent said that rest had become their main occupation since the introduction of the shorter working week. For example, Thierry Bolzer, aged 35, was hard-pushed to say what he did with seven weeks of annual holiday and Wednesday afternoons at home. "I take my son to judo lessons," he ventured, after some hesitation. "Apart from that," said his wife, Vanessa, "he does the shopping from time to time and he sleeps a lot." Along with most French employees, Bolzer did not believe that his office at the regional headquarters of the SNCF state railway network in Nantes, western France, had been disrupted by the 35-hour week. "We can quite easily complete our tasks in 35 hours," he said, "which I suppose shows that we didn't really have enough work to fill 39 hours as it was. We just spend a little less time talking by the coffee machine."

Brigitte Mazeau, 44, was equally adamant that the shorter week had had no effect on output at the laboratory in the Dordogne where she studies tobacco plants for the cigarette manufacturer Seita. "We work in teams now, and we make sure that everyone knows about everyone else's experiments, so that when we are on a day off, they can take it over," she said. And at Seita, days off have become as common as smokers in a French cafe. Under the agreement between unions and management, Mazeau, for example, has annual holiday totalling nine and a half weeks, which she must take regularly throughout the year. She uses her time off for what L'Express reveals as the most common activity in the increased leisure hours - childcare. "I have a 15-year-old daughter, so I try to take the school holidays to be with her," she said. "It has been a great bonus for me and for our family life, and I can firmly recommend the 35-hour week to the British. You should try it."