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Polls show wide support in France for changes in 35-hour week

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[August 30, 2014]  PARIS (Reuters) - Nearly two thirds of the French believe companies should be allowed exemptions to the country's 35-hour working week if they reach agreements with trade unions, two polls showed on Saturday.

France's new pro-business Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron caused a stir this week - in an interview made before his appointment on Tuesday - for floating the idea as a measure that could help companies gain in confidence and competitiveness.

The comments drew immediate fire from trade unions and the government was quick to stamp out speculation there could be a change in the law.

Introduced by a previous Socialist-led government in 2000 in a bid to redistribute work and create jobs, the 35-hour week is fiercely protected by the French left - despite the fact that many French in reality work much longer hours than that.

Under EU pressure to reform France's economy to make it more business-friendly and lift it out of stagnation, President Francois Hollande's government has introduced modest reforms to the labor market but has stayed clear of changing the 35-hour working week.

An Ifop poll for newspaper Sud Ouest Dimanche showed 65 percent of the French favored allowing companies to change the rules on working time if they have reached an agreement with trade unions representing a majority of workers. Thirty-five percent of those polled opposed the idea.

A separate Odoxa poll for daily Le Parisien and television news channel iTele showed 62 percent support for such tweaks to working time, of which 53 percent of Socialist voters and 77 percent of right-wing voters. However, 57 percent of more left-wing voters opposed such a move.

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The same Odoxa poll showed 57 percent of the French - and 71 percent of Socialist voters - believed Macron, a former investment banker and presidential adviser, had "the right profile to tackle France's economic difficulties".

Macron, who helped draw up Hollande's pro-business agenda, replaced leftist Arnaud Montebourg as economy minister in a government reshuffle this week.

Montebourg's removal followed his tirade against Germany's "obsession" with austerity, and angered many on the left wing of the Socialist Party who had been calling for an economic policy U-turn away from budgetary rigor.

(Reporting by Natalie Huet; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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