Macron cancels meeting on four-day week... as too many staff were on holiday

Emmanuel Macron
French workers only needed to register five days' holiday this month to get 12 days off - LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Emmanuel Macron has had to postpone a labour summit to discuss the four-day week because too many participants were on holiday.

The number of national holidays this week means many French will not work at all.

According to France Info, the state radio channel, Matignon – the name given to the prime minister’s office – had hoped “to organise a labour COP (along the lines of global climate talks) to discuss more flexible working hours, and in particular the four-day week”.

The “major” summit was slated to gather trade unions, elected officials, members of civil society and sociologists to discuss the “relationship with work, which has changed since Covid”.

“Ideally”, Matignon would have liked to stage the meeting this week, it wrote.

However, the event had to be postponed in part owing to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit on Monday and Tuesday, but mainly because the number of national holidays this week means that the French only have to take one day off – Friday – to get five days’ holiday.

France Info noted that the timing of the summit was perhaps unfortunate during a period “when the French may not be too keen to hear about work”.

‘It’s a long aqueduct!’

Indeed, on top of the national holidays of May 8 and 9 to mark Victory in Europe Day and the Ascension, given that May 1 was also a national holiday – Labour Day – French workers only needed to register five days’ holiday this month to get 12 days off.

Add to that remote working and the fact that most state schools are shut on Friday and the result is that swathes of the French have headed for the hills. Indeed, the streets of Paris were on Monday night eerily empty as thousands of Parisians left for the provinces, sparking massive traffic jams on Tuesday morning. French roads risk gridlock on Sunday evening when they return, according to national traffic forecaster Bison Futé.

The French have a special word for bank holiday long weekends: they call them “ponts”, or bridges.

In his economic editorial on state radio France Inter, Dominique Seux exclaimed: “This is not a bridge, nor even a viaduct; it’s a long aqueduct!”

In 2022, France’s employers’ federation, Medef, argued that these “ponts” were disrupting the entire working week and suggested following the example of Britain, where public holidays are taken close to the weekend. They also suggested axing two national holidays, saying this would “boost GDP by one point and create 100,000 jobs” – to no avail.

According to French national statistics body INSEE, the number of national holidays in May will cost the national economy between €4-6 billion. Business will take a hit of between 2-3 per cent in most sectors, with peaks of around 10 per cent in some parts of the French economy.

Emmauel Macron and Xi Jinping
The event had to be postponed in part owing to Chinese president Xi Jinping's visit on Monday and Tuesday, - GONZALA FUENTES/REUTERS

However, French rental accommodations and campsites are having a bumper year and posting record occupancy in May. Those in favour also point out the number of actual days worked this year is above average because 2024 is a leap year.

But labour lawyer Sabrina Kemel told BFM Business: “The problem is the return to work, as everything has piled up. Last time this happened, I said to myself, if I’d known, I would have worked a bit in between.”

Speaking on RMC, Charles Consigny, another lawyer, said: “I’m all for a bit of breathing space as long as one works the rest of the time but I think work culture is [in] the process of disappearing in this country plain and simple… in the name of wellbeing, which justifies everything.”

“Work is stigmatised and is no longer seen as [a] means to flourish or emancipate oneself but as a punishment,” he said.

Despite his claims, France topped the UK for the fifth straight year to remain Europe’s most attractive destination for foreign direct investment in 2023, according to an EY survey released last week.

But EY warned that Paris’ European leadership could be challenged.

“Financing, labour costs and taxation – the basic competitiveness tenets – are still considered handicaps,” the report said, also underlining a decrease in “quality of life”, attributed to the French “social climate”.

Good work-life balance

The French are very keen on the idea of the four-day working week. Among the 10,000-odd people who took part in a consultation by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, three-quarters felt that five days on, two days off was “not ideal for a good work-life balance”.

France has seen no major working-time reforms since the introduction of the 35-hour working week in the 1990s.

In his France Inter editorial, Mr Seux said that national holidays weren’t the only threat to productivity.

Remote working was also taking its toll.

He cited a “major company” listed on the French stock market that “took a close look – apparently anonymously – at the computer connection times of its executives”.

“It found that there was a dip on Thursday late afternoon – could this be a coincidence that they were travelling to work at the weekend? – and then, wait for it, there were reconnections until late in the evening before a much less intense Friday, when no meetings were actually possible in the afternoon…”