In an interview published on Thursday, Emmanuel Macron, a former merchant banker, told the right-wing magazine Le Point that companies or industries should be allowed to opt out of the “rules on the 35-hour and pay” if they have “the agreement of the majority of employees”.
Workers’ rights have become “handicaps” for the jobless, he argued.
Although the interview was conducted before his nomination as economy minister it has caused a storm, since the shorter working week was one of the few lasting reforms made by the Socialists while in government, introduced on the grounds that it would create jobs.
The remark is all the more puzzling given that a 2008 law already allows companies to negotiate longer working hours.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s office pointed this out in a statement on Thursday and denied any intention of changing the law again.
Union leaders opposed any further dilution of the law - Laurent Berger of the CFDT federation said it was “not a good idea” – while right-wingers welcomed it, former prime minister François Fillon saying he would vote for a change “without hesitation”.
Socialist leaders were trying to rally the troops around the new cabinet, appointed on Tuesday following the departure of left-wing rebels who criticised the government’s economic policies.
More than 200 of the party’s 290 MPs, including parliamentary group leader Bruno Le Rous and National Assembly chair Claude Bartolone, called on their comrades to rally behind President François Hollande in an open letter published on Le Monde newspaper's website.
Meanwhile, the hard left called on the dissidents to join them in combating “austerity”.
Speaking to RFI, Communist Party leader Pierre Laurent said they should refuse to back a forthcoming vote of confidence in the new government, especially after Valls’s “declaration of love” to the bosses’ union, Medef, on Wednesday.
Valls won a standing ovation from employers when he addressed their summer school, declaring “I love business”.
“I don’t see how the rebel MPs can vote confidence in a government that ostentatiously turns its back on them and even increasingly provokes them,” Laurent said.
Olivier Besancenot of the far-left New Anticapitalist Party called on the dissidents to join a campaign against the government’s “austerity budget” and its Responsibility Pact, which will reduce employers’ contributions by 40 billion euros.