Coronavirus —

The pandemic of the new coronavirus led many governments to put the economy into a kind of quarantine-induced coma and orders of mandatory confinement.

This has also been the case in France, where up to this Friday there had been more than 28,000 deaths from covid-19. There, in the first quarter of the year, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell by 5.8%.

And only last week 300,000 people were put into “partial unemployment”, a figure that allows companies to execute reductions in wages and hours of work for their personnel.

Now that confinement measures are beginning to relax and to try to accelerate the recovery of the economy, the Montaigne Institute -an important think thank based in Paris and whose director is close to Emmanuel Macron- proposed a series of measures that include eliminating a holiday in May and a week of school vacations in October, as well as increased working hours.

These ideas raised enormous controversy and, in addition, opened a national debate on the best way to overcome the economic crisis that the pandemic has left.

The economist Bertrand Martinot, author of the proposals, believes that companies should have the option of being able to force their employees to buy vacation days. BBC WORLD / .

Already in April the French Business Movement (Medef) had sparked controversy with its suggestion, in the mid-forties, that the debate on working harder should be opened.

“Sooner or later we will have to ask ourselves questions about working hours, holidays and paid vacations to accompany an economic recovery and facilitate, by working a little more, additional growth,” said Medef.

Improve hourly productivity and do a little more work?

A speech that at the time was described as «totally indecent»By Laurent Berger, Secretary General of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), the country’s main union.

“Opening the debate today on the increase in working hours when hundreds of thousands of people are likely to lose their jobs due to this virus seems completely anachronistic and even indecent to me,” Berger said during a speech on the public radio station France Info.

“What it worries me they are all those workers who are in danger of losing your job, “he added.

A month after this controversy, the economist Bertrand Martinot, author of the set of proposals published by the Institut Montaigne, relaunches the debate in the European country.

“Basic reasoning tells us that, in the coming months and quarters, companies will experience a very significant drop in their hourly productivity. As a result of protective measures, all economic activity will slow down. Improving productivity per hour worked and working a little more are two ways to correct this drop“Martinot tells BBC Mundo.

To increase working hours, Martinot proposes to facilitate the exchange of vacation days.

According to the Institut Montaigne, French productivity will be affected by containment measures. BBC WORLD / .

“That is already possible today, but the employee is required to agree. What I I propose is than the company can force him to to buy free days“Continues the former adviser to former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Just outrageous”

“Obviously, there will be no free work and it must be done within legal limits,” says Martinot, adding that the employee would continue to have “the right to enjoy their summer vacation.”

The French economist suggests reaching an agreement with the unions so that part of the overtime worked this year can be paid in 2021. “But not in the form of wages, but in the form of participation of workers in the results of the company,” he says.

In dialogue with BBC Mundo, Vincent Gautheron, national secretary of Ugict-CGT, one of the five main unions in the European country, considers this set of proposals to be “simply scandalous”.

“We have a good number of workers who are now totally or partially unemployed. Rather than making employees work harder, we should first make sure everyone has a job that allows them to live decently. ”

According to economist Grégory Claeys of the Brussels-based Bruegel Institute, the plan of the Institut Montaigne is part of a set of ideas that reappear every time there is a crisis.

“In theory, you can think that if we work more, we produce more and this will allow us to get out of the recession, but in practice we realize that adding one or two days of work a year has a really marginal effect on GDP“He tells BBC Mundo.

The Institut Montaigne believes it is necessary to eliminate a holiday and a week of school vacations to help the economy. BBC WORLD / .

At the beginning of the year, the French National Statistical Institute estimated that the fact that 2020 has two working days more than 2019 for calendar reasons gave it 0,12% points to GDP.

“It is an insignificant percentage if we compare it above all with the drop that is expected in some European nations, which ranges from 7% to 10% depending on the country,” Claeys insists.

Inspired by Singapore’s reaction to the SARS crisis in 2003 – when the country cut 15 days of school vacations in June to make up for those lost during quarantine – the Institut Montaigne also suggests eliminate one of the two weeks of rest that the French in school age usually have in October.

In France, most schools and universities, both public and private, plan to remain closed until at least September as part of the containment measures.

According to Martinot, his proposals have two advantages.

“First, it allows students to catch up on school, which is very important. And then, it gives parents the possibility to continue working without any concern, because often when you have children at home (…) you don’t work well ».

Furthermore, the economist considers it necessary to end the Ascension Day holiday, a Christian holiday celebrated 40 days after Easter Sunday.

“It is a proposal that would have been made outside the context of covid-19: France has the highest number of vacations in May within the countries of Europe. We have three holidays, some years we even have four, “he explains.

“This causes France to lag behind in terms of production per capita compared to Germany or other northern European countries. So this is a way to slightly increase growth potential from the country”.

A “whim” of entrepreneurs

Union leader Vincent Gautheron doubts that these proposals help improve productivity and believes that it is simply “a whim” of employers who they think that you always have to work and produce more.

Less vacation means less income for the tourism industry, warns Vincent Gautheron. BBC WORLD / EPA

It’s not sensible. On the one hand we have industries and services that will ask for less vacations and more work, but on the other hand we have the tourism and entertainment sectors that will tell the government ‘you have to help us because with quarantine we have lost income and we are on the verge of bankruptcy’.

“If employees don’t have vacations, they will not do tourism. One must be careful with that”.

Strongly agreeing with this reflection, the economist Grégory Claeys considers it important to emphasize that the tourism industry would not be the only one affected.

“In general, in many sectors it is useless to make people work more if there is no demand. Maybe it can help some sectors like construction to catch up, but in no case will it make people consume more ».

In late March, the Macron government took a series of measures to cushion the economic impact of the crisis, such as increase the maximum duration of the day labor of 48 to 60 hours, make it easier for companies to put their employees on a part-time basis and allow for an expansion of night and Sunday hours.

The director of the Institut Montaigne, Laurent Bigorgne, is close to the French president Emmanuel Macron and supported him throughout his presidential campaign in 2016. BBC WORLD / .

For this reason, an important sector of the French population has received with amazement the proposals of the Institut Montaigne.

“Structures already exist that allow companies to organize work and even do a little more work,” says Gautheron.

“When we ask employees for efforts, they consider it unfair”

The unionist believes that “the logic of the immediate return of capital” must be ended and better wages must be encouraged to “allow everyone to live as well as possible” and consume the goods and services they need.

«The pandemic has questioned several citizens about the relationship we have with the planet. We have focused a lot on the fact that people can eat this or that animal. “

“The lesson from all of this is that at a time when our production model has challenged our planet and its ecosystems, these are the kinds of problems that we will face most regularly if we don’t change our approach to the environment.”

But for Bertrand Martinot the problem is that the French have a relationship with work «that it has become pathological«.

“There is an atmosphere of general mistrust in France. Mistrust towards the company, towards the State … So, when we ask employees for efforts, they consider it unfair. There is a feeling of injustice and inequality that makes this type of speech – completely rational – not want to be heard ».

BBC

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