France’s 35-hour work week faced more pressure from business on Tuesday, as workers at a Robert Bosch plant near Lyon choose between longer hours and layoffs, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

President Jacques Chirac reportedly was under pressure to say where he stood on the work week law, which was enacted by the previous, Socialist-led government.

AP said German tool and car parts maker Bosch was the latest of several European companies to demand longer working weeks from staff, stoking fears on the old continent that short shifts and long holidays are becoming things of the past.

It reportedly is the first company to issue such an ultimatum in France, where workers felt protected until now by the 35-hour work week law – the Socialists, now in opposition, are demanding that the government say whether and how it plans to change the law.

Associated Press said that, while addressing fellow lawmakers on Tuesday, Socialist deputy Jean Le Garrec taunted Chirac’s conservatives over their internal divisions on the issue, challenging the government to “take a unanimous position” and also condemned what he called Bosch’s “outsourcing blackmail.”

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The 820 workers at Bosch’s factory outside the southern French city of Lyon were voting on whether to accept new contracts increasing working time from 35 to 36 hours a week, cutting bonuses and freezing salaries for three years or to be laid off, AP said.

According to the report, Bosch France has said that, if at least 90% of workers agree, it will cancel 190 of 300 planned job cuts and avoid compulsory layoffs for the rest – otherwise, financial director Eric Bazile confirmed that the company plans to transfer a new diesel pump production line to the Czech Republic.

AP said that final results of the postal ballot are expected later in the week, but union officials said the vast majority of votes already received were in favour of the increased hours.

The Associated Press noted that Bosch’s Lyon staff looks likely to follow the example of workers at a Siemens mobile phone plant in Germany, who agreed last month to work an extra five hours a week to avert threatened layoffs and outsourcing to Hungary, while DaimlerChrysler, tyre maker Continental and gas and engineering group Linde [headed by former BMW executive Wolfgang Reitzle] are also talking to workers in some departments about longer hours.

By sidestepping France’s 35-hour law, Bosch has shown that the new vogue for such strong-arm negotiating tactics could spread outside Germany, AP said.

The report said many French employers are pressing for the 35-hour law to be watered down and have hinted at possible outsourcing, citing competition from cheaper labour in eastern Europe and Asia and sluggish economic growth at home.

President Chirac reportedly said earlier this year that he didn’t see a need for further legislative changes to the 35-hour work week, after the government passed amendments to increase overtime limits.

Since then, however, the issue has refused to go away, and Chirac is now expected to give some ground during his annual Bastille Day television interview on Wednesday, the Associated Press said.