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Wake-up call for lazy France

Paris, Dec. 29 (Reuters): Francis Mer could be relaxing in the Caribbean if he wanted. Instead, France’s 64-year-old finance minister gets up routinely at 5.30 am, exercises for half an hour on his rowing machine and then works a 14-hour day.

He wants more French people to work like him.

A former steel magnate who is rich enough not to work, Mer is a man on a mission to promote the merits of hard graft in a country where employees enjoy some of the shortest working hours in Europe and are keen to resist the pressures of globalisation.

Mer is unfazed by the scale of his challenge and has a clear message for the French: The state is not going to be there for you in the way it used to be.

“For the last 20 years, French culture has been marked by the message ‘don’t tire yourself out. We’ll look after you’,” he told students in the city of Lyon.

“As much as it is desirable to know how to relax, and to enjoy this relaxation, if you think of your personal life and your professional life as a long, quiet journey which consists of waiting for life to end, then life will just pass you by.”

Mer wants to sharpen the competitiveness of the French economy by fostering a more entrepreneurial spirit among workers who traditionally look to the state and powerful trade unions to protect them. He also wants to reduce dependency on the state.

France’s public finances are creaking under the pressure of the increasing cost of people who have retired and Mer’s work ethic pitch is aimed at selling reforms being pushed through by the centre-right government.

Since coming to power in June last year, the administration has knocked the edge off France’s 35-hour week — the landmark reform of the previous, Socialist-led government — by allowing workers to clock up more overtime. Another reform passed this year requires people to work longer to earn their state pension. A further measure cut a national holiday to raise health care funding for the elderly.

Mer wants to further reduce dependency on the state and boost public revenues by reducing France’s unemployment rate and getting more people to work.

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