The New Statesman Profile - Martine Aubry

She brought the 35-hour week to France, a reform of global reach. But is she a visionary or a bully?

If you want to get on the wrong side of Martine Aubry, which is a mistake, ask her how far she owes her position of power in France to being her father's daughter. "He's him, I'm me," she'll say, looking you hard in the eye, without in the least seeking to detract from the importance of her father.

Indeed, the question is about as malapropos as she makes it sound. A woman who shakes the industrial world by single- handedly imposing the 35-hour week on a doubting France plainly needs no help from Dad, even though he is Jacques Delors, the master-builder of Europe who famously reduced aggrieved Sun headline-writers to smutty schoolboy doggerel.

What a reform hers is. Bold, utterly controversial and potentially of global reach. "The social building site of the year 2000," she calls it, not unreasonably. As it came into force in final form this month, one sensed that no one else in France could have pulled it off. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's left-wing government wanted it, but it was Aubry's unstoppable will that made it happen. At the head of her gargantuan social affairs ministry, officially named Employment and Solidarity, this Joan of Work is the spine of a government whose popularity may propel Jospin to the French presidency in a year or so. And then what will become of her? She is, I can divulge, working on it.

Devotees of Tony Blair's market liberalism might prefer to burn her at the stake, for she is not one to bow low before the market. She stands at Jospin's shoulder raising her eyebrows high at the Third Way. In spirit, her reform certainly runs counter to the kind of economic changes Blair is insisting on. Self-assured, courageous, tart-tongued, driven, "Steamroller" to her staff: such a woman is bound to make enemies. The general run of French employers, though not necessarily the major ones, hate her.

Let her try turning on her dark-eyed, bob-haired Basque-ish charm (inherited from her mother, a pure Basque) and they still hate her. She is said to have a flirtatious eye, but this must be a private side. Her very name arouses crimson-faced jeers at bosses' assemblies. Even her own Socialist Party colleagues are divided about her. "I try to lunch with her as often as possible," a former Socialist minister has noted. "For a couple of hours, I know she won't be running me down." Many find her a bully. She works her staff to a frazzle. One wouldn't want to say anything less than unchallengeably bright at her table, for she does not like to be contradicted. Her manner says: "I listen. I decide. That's it."

She has come to incarnate the left pole of the essentially pragmatic Jospin government, ranged against a right pole represented until recently by the masterful, easygoing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was forced to resign as finance minister over a little matter of shady invoicing. Personal rivalry destroyed their relationship. Now that her nemesis has gone, the left pole stands supreme. But this is something of a fiction. She is no more hard left than Jospin is. However, she is not at ease in the Socialist Party, largely because she hasn't created a dependable party following.

All that ministerial power, then, and no political base. The public admires her, impressed by her plain-speaking authority. But popular esteem seems to stop there, somewhere short of affection. The nature of her political passion may explain this. She is hooked on labour and on the social problems deriving from it. Not exactly sexy, this, for an ambitious politician. But it is ingrained in her, something she really does get from her rigorous father, from way back when Delors, a Parisian, started out as a bank union leader before rising to French government, and then European, heights.

As a child, Aubry heard union bigwigs and labour experts putting the world to rights in the family kitchen. Later, straight out of France's elite ENA school for future leaders of the state, she entered the ministry of labour rather than a more glamorous post that was hers for the taking. She consumed policy dossiers for breakfast. In time, she was elevated to labour minister under an admiring President Francois Mitterrand, and when the left lost power in parliament, she did a spell in industry as a top executive of the French chemical giant Pechiney. Jospin's election at the head of a left-wing coalition in 1997 pitched her back into the top flight of government.

At 49, she runs an empire that essentially decides how the French live - a sticky challenge in the land of savoir-vivre. An astonishing array of responsibilities compete with labour and employment for her attentions: health, social security, the cities, poverty, social exclusion and more.

Don't tell Aubry that the state should take a back seat to let the economy do as it will. In just over two years at her superministry, she has brought in universal free healthcare to cover the part of the population (a significant 10 per cent, mainly jobless) that was previously uncovered by France's generous, if not extravagant, national health service. Facing down scoffers, she has also introduced an inventive youth employment programme putting jobless people under 26 to work in an ingenious variety of new minimum-wage public jobs ranging from uniformed police helpers and old folks' go-betweens to hiking advisers and classroom minders. The accent on creating jobs also distinguishes the Aubry way from the Blair way, as a forthcoming Franco-British report on combating social exclusion underlines. Somehow, though, youth unemployment has shrunk from an ugly 25 per cent to 15 per cent.

The 35-hour week is her monument. She seemed lukewarm about it before taking office. It was not she but Strauss-Kahn who first shaped the idea. But when Jospin sent her into the front line against France's obstinately high unemployment, she became its field marshal - also its carpenter and cobbler. Making the French work less for the same pay has indeed caused turmoil, but not as much as some insist.

Still, I wouldn't like to run the state accounting department that measures its real worth. All French workers except those in the smallest firms are affected by the Aubry reform, from the Renault assembly-line hand to the middle manager, from the town hall clerk to the person in the Donald Duck suit at Disneyland. The idea is that if people work less (39 hours was the former standard) more jobs will become available and unemployment will be mopped up.

This was never more than wishful thinking. Roughly speaking, what is happening is that rigidly run France is becoming flexible despite itself, a nice irony in view of the trouble Aubry's sole superior, Jospin, has with the word "flexibility". (To avoid its capitalist twang, he uses "suppleness" in its place.) Taking 35 hours as a legal average, employers and unions have tended to multiply up working hours over an entire year, so that some weeks can be longer (when demand is high) and some weeks much shorter (when demand is low). A more general result is that the French are getting even longer holidays than they did before - seven to eight weeks a year instead of five to six. Companies that play by the Aubry book and create new jobs to fill the lost hours receive handy financial inducements from the state.

The largest companies can absorb the costly reform with little anguish because increased flexibility ratchets up productivity, and wages are being largely frozen for a year or so to make up for fewer hours being worked. This explains why the hostility of France's big bosses to Aubry is muted. The not-so-big ones still insist that the short week is the road to ruin. The government, they fume, has no business telling people how long they can work. This is a matter for negotiation between unions and employers (as indeed it is in other western countries). For their part, many workers would plainly prefer to have more money than more spare time.

So the 35-hour week is hardly a joyride for anyone, as the current rash of strikes in transport and hospital services confirm. And yet unemployment has come down. Not just youth unemployment. Since Aubry took charge, the national jobless rate has dropped from 12.7 per cent to 10.6 per cent and sinking - nothing to swoon over by Britain's current low-unemployment standards, but a significant breakthrough for France. It would be foolish of her to refuse credit for this. The 35-hour week, she claims, has made "a real impact". But she is also wise not to crow. She knows that unemployment is dropping largely because France is booming. Economic growth has broken into a gallop.

Her way of capitalising on all this is, at first sight, stupefying. She has just announced that she is resigning from the government next year. Is she exhausted? Is her recent divorce troubling her? Does she need to spend more time with her daughter? Maybe. Her private life, like the part her father's name has played in her rise, is taboo. She does have a new goal however. She wants to be mayor of Lille!

Lille is the biggest French city north of Paris, a fine working-class city with deep labour roots, a lowlands crossroads with a Channel Tunnel arm extending in a flash to London. Still, it does seem a step down from a superministry in Paris. There is method, however, in such madness. Aubry's lack of a power base has plainly been nagging her. The advice the wily Mitterrand gave his more promising Socialist colts was that if they wanted to endure and not get blown away by events, they needed to get themselves elected to take charge of some provincial stronghold. Better a solid local power base guaranteeing political legitimacy than an ephemeral ministerial attache case.

The belief is shared by all French political heavyweights. The snag is that pure-minded Jospin, aware of potential conflicts of interest involved, won't let members of the current cabinet also run personal fiefdoms. The Lille mayoralty is a shoo-in for Aubry in municipal elections a year from now. The job has literally been kept warm for her by the venerable Pierre Mauroy, a Socialist former prime minister. I don't wish to hurry along the career of so hurried a woman. Enough to say that the electoral timetable favours her. After she has run Lille for a year, the 2002 presidential election could well see Jospin elevated to president. It would suit him to have a woman as PM. By then, Aubry will have added political weight to the fearsome ministerial competence she can apply to such a task. Phew.