Towards a comprehensive overhaul of French industrial relations?
Following the call from France's MEDEF employers' confederation in November 1999 for the establishment of a "new social constitution", overhauling the French system of industrial relations, the leaders of all the main trade union confederations and employers' associations met on 3 February 2000. From these talks emerged a joint list of eight main issues for negotiation in 2000.
In November 1999, the executive council of the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) issued a solemn declaration, calling amongst other changes for the establishment of a "new social constitution" (nouvelle constitution sociale) to curtail "burgeoning, incessant and destabilising intervention by the state", and for a "social-partner-led overhaul of the industrial relations system" (FR9912122F).
Joint trade union statement
Faced with MEDEF's "new social constitution initiative", together with its threat to pull out of jointly-managed social security and unemployment benefit agencies (FR0001134F), the CFDT, CFE-CGC, CFTC, CGT and CGT-FO trade union confederations met on 26 January 2000 - just before talks with MEDEF and the other employers' associations on 3 February - to hammer out a joint response.
The 26 January meeting resulted in the five union confederations publishing a joint statement, in which they assert both their determination to oppose any challenge mounted by employers' associations to collectively agreed guarantees and their commitment to joint union action on this issue. On a more fundamental level, the unions reject the method adopted by MEDEF and reassert the freedom of all participants in collective bargaining to have a say in establishing the content, type and timetable of bargaining. The union statement stresses the urgent need to start negotiations on unemployment insurance and pensions as well as on trade union rights and worker representation, especially in small and medium-sized companies.
Employers and unions meet
On 3 February 2000, the Economic and Social Council (Conseil économique et social) hosted a MEDEF-instigated meeting between the various participants in collective bargaining in France. MEDEF, the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) and the Craftwork Employers' Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA) represented employers. They were faced by the five intersectoral trade union confederations with representative status.
These talks, lasting close to six hours, resulted in the drawing up of a statement of decisions signed by all those organisations present. This document sets out eight issues for discussion as well as a timetable for negotiations.
MEDEF put forward the following four priority issues:
- ways and means for the development of social dialogue;
- unemployment insurance, the struggle against precarious employment, and young people's access to the labour market;
- reform of the workplace health system and changes to the employment-related accident insurance system; and
- the development of supplementary pensions schemes.
The unions were keen to assert their entitlement to select issues for negotiation, and after an adjournment in the meeting, succeeded in extending the agenda to include four other issues, which were included in the "statement of decisions". These additional issues were: an overhaul of vocational training; equality at the workplace; the position and role of managerial and professional staff; and social protection.
In their 26 January joint statement, the unions had been eager to see trade union rights included on the negotiating agenda. The CGT confederation was the main driving force on this issue. While this question was not included per se, it is nevertheless referred to in the section on "ways and means for the development of collective bargaining", alongside: the articulation of the various levels of agreements (intersectoral, sectoral and company-level); the right of the social partners to refer an issue to the courts; and union information channels or social dialogue in small and medium-sized businesses and craft companies. The four issues initially put forward by MEDEF, which were altered and reworked to make them acceptable to the unions, will be the major focus of four ad hoc working parties. Each working party was to hold an initial meeting by 15 March 2000. Finally, late in the second quarter of 2000, another meeting of all the social partners will be organised.
The approach that has been set out for negotiations on the overhaul of the industrial relations system has left to one side, for the time being, several important questions.
The first of these concerns the representative status of organisations, in particular the trade unions. Those unions deemed representative in some industries but not at intersectoral level, in particular the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA and the Group of 10 (Groupe des Dix), have recently expressed misgivings over the idea of any "overhaul of the industrial relations system" which did not challenge the system of assumption of representative status set up in 1966. The Minister for Employment and Solidarity, Martine Aubry reopened this issue recently with her second 35-hour week law (FR9909104F), and MEDEF is openly debating the rules governing the conclusion of collective agreements. CGT and CFDT are not in principle opposed to discussion on this issue. However, CFE-CGC, CFTC and CGT-FO reject any negotiation on these rules for the time being.
The second question that remains to be addressed concerns the viability of any overhaul of the French industrial relations system implemented without taking into account the immediate European environment. The CFDT general secretary, Nicole Notat, has clearly suggested that any overhaul should be based on the model currently in force at the European Union level, as set out in the October 1991 agreement on social policy between the European-level social partners, which formed the basis for the Maastricht Treaty's annexed Agreement on social policy, subsequently incorporated into the European Community Treaty by the Amsterdam Treaty (EU9707135F). The EU-level social partners are given a major role in the formulation and implementation of EU social policy by this system. MEDEF seems to be pushing for a more "anglo-saxon" model, with major decentralisation of bargaining, particularly to company level. The French social partners have not yet reached agreement on this issue.
The last major open issue is the place of the state and its democratic institutions in the social and industrial relations field. Employers' organisations and trade unions discuss and negotiate on themes in which the French state has played, and continues to play, a major role. The President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, has stated that he is keenly following the current initiative, which could possibly lead to an amendment of the French Constitution. For his part, the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, has openly expressed his misgivings. Marc Blondel, for CGT-FO, has asserted categorically that, unlike democratically elected and parliamentary representatives, participants in collective bargaining cannot claim to represent the interests of the country as a whole. The taking of positions on this issue is sure to continue in the future.
The 3 February 2000 talks launched a process of discussions and negotiations between the social partners on their role and function which will last several months.
This process originally emerged as a result of MEDEF's unilateral "new social constitution" proposal but has now widened to involve the majority of employers' associations and unions. However, while debate on this issue is confined to these organisations, the potential impact of any overhaul is much wider, with repercussions on the organisation of French society as a whole. Politicians have not as yet fully come to grips with this issue and public debate is still in its infancy. However, the creation of a revised French industrial relations and social system, and its integration within the wider European environment, are major issues. (Maurice Braud, IRES)