France's (search) extended vacations and 35-hour work week have long been the target of critics who say the labor laws hamper economic growth. Now they could be falling by the wayside.

After heated debate, lawmakers approved a bill on Wednesday that would allow French employees to work more.

The lower house of parliament voted 370-180 on the measure that would permit private sector employees to work up to 48 hours each week — the European Union (search) limit.

The measure now goes to the Senate for debate early next month and is expected to pass easily. President Jacques Chirac's (search) conservatives, which are pushing for the changes, control both houses of parliament.

Supporters say the reform would lighten a burden for companies and state finances, and allow workers to earn more money. Chirac has criticized the 35-hour workweek as a "brake" on economic development and job creation.

The new measure would not formally dismantle the 35-hour workweek but would make it more flexible by giving private-sector workers the option of putting in more hours on a voluntary basis.

The shortened 35-hour workweek was put in place between 1998 and 2000 by the previous Socialist government which touted it as a social breakthrough. Opponents of the new measure contend that the shortened workweek would be effectively destroyed.

"Never since 1936 has a government intervened to prolong the time at work," said communist lawmaker Maxime Gremetz.

Leisure time is sacrosanct in France — workers get at least five weeks vacation a year plus 11 national holidays.

Lawmakers sparred over the plan during five days of debate. The vote went ahead despite stalling tactics by the Socialist-led opposition and a campaign of protests. More than 300,000 people marched in towns across France last Saturday to denounce the bill.

The Socialists had instigated the 35-hour workweek — down from 39 hours— as a means of reducing soaring unemployment. The idea was that companies would hire more employees to compensate. But France still has an unemployment rate near 10 percent.

The conservative government is predicting economic growth of 2.5 percent this year and says the 35-hour week is too much of a burden for companies, state finances and for workers who want to earn more.