European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in France: background summary

  • The unionisation rate has always been lower in France than in other European countries, barely reaching 20% at the end of the 1960s. Nevertheless, numbers of union members have remained steady since the late 1990s (around 8% of all employees according to the OECD, and 11.2% according to the rate recalculated by the French Ministry of Labour in 2016: 19.8% in the public sector and 8.7% in the private sector). The breakdown by sector shows that unions remain well established in traditional industries but are almost absent in SMEs.
  • French unionism is not oriented towards providing services for members but towards working to defend employee interests. Moreover, the collective agreements negotiated by the unions apply to all employees, regardless of whether they are union members or not. Employees thus have little personal incentive to join a union.
  • The French union movement is traditionally characterised by pluralism, rivalry between the union confederations and a lack of financial and organisational resources. Despite these weaknesses, unions enjoy a high level of participation in elections of employee representatives in companies and have the capacity to successfully mobilise workers (Pernot J-M., France’s trade unions in the aftermath of the crisis).
  • The union landscape is fairly stable, with five representative confederations at national level. Since 2008, workplace elections have become the decisive criterion for determining the representativeness of unions. To participate in collective bargaining, a union needs to gain, dependent on the level concerned, at least 10% of the votes in the elections for employee representatives and 8% at sectoral and cross-industry level. The three main organisations are the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) and FO (Force Ouvrière), all of which are affiliated to the ETUC. The first two account for 65 - 70% of union members, with FO bringing this figure up to 80%. The two other organisations representative at national level are the CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), also affiliated to the ETUC, and the sectoral organisation representing management staff, the CFE-CGC (Confédération française de l'encadrement-CGC). Two more recent organisations, the UNSA (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes), affiliated to the ETUC, and Solidaires are only representative in certain sectors, enabling them to participate in sector-level negotiations. 
  • In contrast to the unions, the level of participation in the employer organisations is quite high: 75% in 2012, though it has shown a downward tendency in the last few years, mainly due to de-industrialisation and the rapid expansion of the services sector.
  • Since 2014, representativeness criteria also apply to employer organisations, with results confirming the three existing employer confederations. The most important one, MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France), intends and claims to represent companies of all sizes in all sectors. Two smaller organisations contest this claim, stating that MEDEF only represents the interests of large companies: the SME-oriented CPME (Confédération des petites et moyennes entreprises); and U2P (Union des entreprises de proximité) oriented towards the skilled craft sector and the liberal professions. The U2P, sometimes in great opposition to the other two employer organisations, has itself signed cross-industry agreements with the union confederations, probably because small-sized employers have much closer links to their employees.
  • Over the past few years, several new laws have led to major changes in industrial relations and the labour market: the 2013 law, the result of a national cross-industry agreement between the social partners; the 2015 law, adopted after the breakdown of negotiations; and the 2016 law, adopted despite the opposition of part of the union organisations and massive demonstrations over a period of 4 months. In the wake of the 2016 law, the reform adopted in September 2017 following the election of President Macron in the form of five decrees (Ordonnances) profoundly changed the previous system. These decrees weaken the individual and collective protections provided by the Labour Code through the decentralisation of collective bargaining and recast workplace representation rules; an easing of the procedures for making workers redundant for business reasons; and the introduction of a compensation limit in the event of legal proceedings. In return, better employment security for employees was planned via reforms targeting unemployment insurance and vocational training. Meeting many of their demands, the employer organisations have clearly backed these decrees, while the unions are firmly opposed to them.
  • The role of the State is one of the most outstanding features of the French collective bargaining system, the strength and spread of which have never rested on the existence of strong bargaining parties but on the support of the State, in particular via the extension of collective agreements and the existence of a statutory minimum wage. Despite low union density, the coverage rate of collective agreements is one of the highest of all OECD countries: 98% in the private sector, including state-owned companies. Collective bargaining takes place at three levels: cross-industry, sectoral and company. Sectoral bargaining dominates, though over the last few decades, there has been a trend towards company agreements. These increasingly derogate from the rules set in the sectoral collective agreements. In practice, recourse to derogations has till now remained limited.
  • Under the new architecture resulting from the 2017 decrees, coordination between bargaining levels is no longer based on the “favourability principle” but on a distribution of the bargaining topics between the various levels. However, the company level is the priority level for the majority of topics. Furthermore, collective bargaining in companies without unions has been facilitated. To compensate for the fact that many companies, for the most part SMEs, are unable to negotiate due to the absence of union representatives, successive legislative acts adopted since the 2000s have extended possibilities for non-union representatives to negotiate in non-unionised workplaces. The 2017 decrees have considerably extended the scope of these provisions. Three different schemes have been introduced. Dependent on the size of the workplace, they allow, in the absence of unions, the conclusion of agreements with CSE (see below) representatives; with an employee mandated by a union; or even, in companies with less than 20 employees, the approval of an agreement drawn up unilaterally by the employer by at least two-thirds of the staff.
  • In companies, employee representation has been drastically simplified. This representation is always based on two pillars: the unions which are allowed to set up a union section and to designate one or more union delegates insofar as they are representative; and on a works council (the Comité social et économique or CSE) directly elected by all staff. The CSE replaces all former staff representation bodies, taking over all their functions: dealing with employee complaints, consultation on business issues, working conditions and health and safety, and the management of social and cultural activities. A CSE has to be established in all relevant companies by the end of 2019 at the latest.
  • A CSE's resources (number of members, hours made available for CSE work, etc.) have been considerably pruned compared to those available to the former bodies, even though they are expected to take over all their functions, especially issues relating to health and safety. Moreover, representation at site/plant level (local representatives) can only be introduced via a company agreement. These findings raise questions as to the future quality of any improvements to health and safety conditions.
  • Employee representation on executive and supervisory boardshas existed in France for many years, especially in formerly nationalised companies. The 2013 law has increased the number of companies subject to this obligation. The boards of large private companies must have at least one employee representative (H). However, these representatives remain very much in the minority. Despite the insistence of certain union organisations (the CFDT in particular), the 2017 decrees do not provide for any form of co-determination.
  • Complementing the reform of labour law, a law adopted in September 2018 reforming vocational training is intended to improve employability, while a reform of the unemployment insurance system is ongoing. In both cases, a major question-mark hangs over the equal representation of the social partners. The overhaul of the French social model desired by the government is to be rounded off by a pension reform. The schedule for this has not yet been set.

 (updated July 2019)