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Four-day workweek? It sounds too good to be true

Most of us are susceptible, sooner or later, to ideas that are too good to be true. A few years ago the idea of a four-day workweek lifted off. Pollyannas proclaimed this would enable all of us to work less, make the same money or more, and company profits would still rise.

But the last time I checked, we all seemed to be working longer hours while wages grew very slowly. Further, we were all on call 24 hours a day every day; we were constantly in touch. Demands of competitors and customers gave us no rest.

Business is good; unemployment is very low. But the four-day workweek is nowhere in sight. Unless you live in France, a country with a long history of self-deception.

Last week Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced his intention to introduce a law that would reduce the workweek in France from 39 to 35 hours. It would take effect by the year 2000. Employers complained bitterly that it would make them non-competitive, particularly in global markets. An already floundering economy, they said, would not recover.

France's labor unions, as militant as they are unrealistic, immediately protested that they didn't want to wait until 2000 for a 35-hour workweek. Also, they expected their members to get paid the same amount for 35 hours of work as they did for 39.

Jospin's cockamamie scheme is supposed to reduce France's 12.5 percent unemployment rate (ours is under 5 percent). Oh, I forgot to mention Jospin is running for re-election. That accounts for his ability to ignore how companies will pay for the drop in productivity. Is it too cynical to suggest he cares less about France's economic future and more about winning the election?

I don't think it is. Jospin recently told the leaders of 40 nations at a Council of Europe summit that unemployment is "the biggest challenge that we have to face at the end of the 20th century at the Continental level." If this is the case, Jospin's 35-hour workweek hardly seems like a solution to the problem.

A reduced workweek can create and save jobs, but usually this tactic is applied under very different conditions. Take the case several years ago of Germany's venerable car manufacturer, Volkswagen. Faced with increased competition and, at the time, a strong German mark, Volkswagen was experiencing slumping sales abroad. Job losses would increase unless something dramatic was done.

Labor and management devised a plan of accommodation. Workers would reduce their hours, and their pay, voluntarily. They also agreed they would get the same amount of work done in the shortened workweek. In return they would get to keep their jobs, and, hopefully, the company's business would recover.

It did. Volkswagen became more efficient, its competitiveness increased and sales rose. New jobs were created as a result of the plan. Volkswagen's success contains some important lessons. Open markets will have their way in the end. We can do little to affect them other than learn to compete better.

Increasingly, competition means competing in global markets _ so you cannot ignore the policies other countries are adopting. If France wants to tie its performance to Germany's, it needs to do more than tie the exchange rate of the franc to the mark.

Jospin may get away with ignoring reality: He could get re-elected. And France will experience more unemployment, decreased competitiveness and a lower standard of living for its citizens.

Jospin reminds us that America has no monopoly on politicians who suspend common sense if election is at stake. But the economic realities of this era will bring France and him back to reality.

_ James Champy is an author and syndicated columnist who writes on leadership issues in the workplace.

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