European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in France: background summary

  • With only 8% of unionised workers, France is located close to the bottom of the European scale in terms of trade union density.
  • The unionisation rate is even lower if the private sector alone – and in particular small and medium-sized companies – is taken into account.
  • A point to be emphasised is that it is not in a worker’s individual interest to join a trade union: French trade unionism is based not on the formula of service provision but exclusively on commitment to the defence of workers’ interests. In other words, a unionised employee derives little advantage, other than legal assistance, from union membership: no advantage accrues to members from the agreements negotiated by trade union because the provisions of such agreements apply to all employees; indeed, members even risk seeing their career advancement hampered by commitment to the trade union cause.
  • The French trade union movement is made up of several rival confederations. In spite of this ‘trade union pluralism and low rate of unionisation, the French trade unions do gain widespread support in the context of employee representation elections and are capable of mobilising workers very successfully.
  • The heavy and ubiquitous constraints imposed by legislation notwithstanding, the social partners’ negotiating arenas are actually quite varied. Collective bargaining is conducted at the national, sectoral and company levels. At each of these levels detailed rules specify which parties are entitled to negotiate and what conditions are to be met for an agreement to be valid. Following a wide-ranging reform of collective bargaining in 2008, the representativeness of trade unions came to depend to a major extent on the results of the workplace elections. While sectoral negotiations are the most important bargaining level in terms of coverage, there is a trend towards strengthening the role of company-level agreements which are now allowed, increasingly, to waive rules and standards set by sectoral collective agreements.
  • At company level there exists a complex system of worker representation based simultaneously on the trade unions – each of which is entitled to form a trade union branch within the workplace – and the structures directly elected by the workforce as a whole. When a trade union is present in the workplace, the main agent of representation is the shop-steward (delégué synodical). It is s/he who takes part in the collective bargaining. Only if no such representatives are present may an employer seek to conclude collective agreements with the elected staff representation bodies.
  • While board-level worker representation has existed in France for many years, especially within the former nationalised companies in the early 1980s, a law of 2013 considerably broadened the number of companies subject to the requirement to include worker representatives on the board. Henceforth, apart from public and privatised enterprises, which were already subject to this requirement, large private firms will also be required to have at least one worker representative on their board. However, the worker representatives are still in a minority in these governing bodies and the legislation contains no provision for any form of joint decision-making.