FRANCE Industrial relations profile
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Since some years now, the economic context has been characterised by a global financial and economic crisis. Growth has been low since summer 2011, and dropped to zero in the first quarter 2012. The unemployment rate increased (it reached 10% of the workforce in the first quarter 2012). Far from being an obstacle vis-à-vis conventional activity, the difficult economic context has instead strengthened collective bargaining as a means of regulating social relations. At all levels, negotiators have had to set up meetings in order to articulate quick responses required by the economic situation and plan reforms of medium or long term. Unemployment compensation, supplementary pensions, youth employment, vocational training or wage agreements concluded over the last several years have, to some extent, cushioned the negative effects of this economic crisis.
2011 was an election year, the French voting for both the presidential and legislative elections. It was characterised by the presidential elections and the victory of Francois Hollande – candidate of the socialist party – in the presidential elections while a new National Assembly (Parliament law Chamber) gave a clear majority to the Socialist and left wing parties. The new government held a social conference in July 2012 (FR1205031I) bringing together representatives of employer organisations and trade unions; for the latter, both trade unions considered representatives by law were invited as were those who are not (yet) considered as representative (e.g. UNSA) but should become so in 2013, when the new law on representativeness will apply.
French industrial relations have always been tense and dominated by the strong involvement of the state and the law. In fact, the social dialogue in France seems unable to exist without conflicts. In 1884, the law recognised the freedom of association and the first laws relating to collective bargaining were passed in 1919, it was universal by law in 1950, establishing the industry as the main level for bargaining. In 1971, collective bargaining at ‘inter-sectoral (cross-industry) level was also established. Finally, the ‘Auroux laws’ of 1982 developed collective bargaining at workplace or company level, establishing also an annual obligation to negotiate wages and working time.
There is a traditional lack of mutual recognition between the social partners, and it can explain the interventionist role of the state in industrial and social matters. But many changes occurred in the last thirty years. The sharp break with the period of the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ (the 30-year post-war ‘boom’) challenged the relevance of old patterns. The state is losing its influence as a regulator in a global economy.
French trade unionism (‘syndicalisme’) is characterised by three important features: trade unions are politically positioned, fragmented and divided. These last ten years have revealed a deep crisis, characterised by a fall in the number of active members: according to the Sofres survey the rate of workers affiliated with a trade union in 1981was 44% in the public sector and 18% in the private sector, and nowadays, the proportion is around 25% in the public sector and 5–7% in the private sector. New trade unions have emerged: the Independent Union – Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD), which has a radical position, or the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA).
In recent decades, the system of industrial relations changed remarkably. A decentralised bargaining system has been developed, giving companies more autonomy from both labour legislation and collective agreements. The industrial relations agenda shifted to a large extent from wages to employment and production issues. The French social partners have been committed to taking initiatives for reducing the effects of the global economic crisis on the national social and economic situation.
The French state remains a central actor in the ongoing development of the industrial relations system. Two laws are particularly important because they have led to profound upheavals of the system of industrial relations in France.
The 2004 Act
A common position signed in July 2001 by the social partners led to a deep reform of collective bargaining which materialised in 2004 (FR0404105F). In France, statute law is at the basis of the structure and scope of collective bargaining: if no special dispensation is permitted under statute, collective bargaining must comply with the minimum requirements set by the law. The legislator holds the exclusive competence to determine the fundamental principles of trade union law and of collective bargaining.
Traditionally, the articulation between the different levels of bargaining has been regulated by the principle of ‘favourability’ to the employees (‘principe de faveur’), which provides that a collective agreement cannot set out provisions which are less favourable to the employee than those set at higher levels. The 4th May 2004 Act changes the rules which used to govern collective bargaining, especially regarding recourse to a majority commitment, the hierarchy of normative sources and the relationship between the different bargaining levels. Nonetheless, the 2004 Act did not modify some key elements of the French bargaining system:
1) the principle of trade-union pluralism: Each collective agreement signed by one employers’ organisation and one trade union, is valid.
2) The ‘erga omnes’ effect vis-à-vis employees of collective agreements implies that it applies to all employees.
3) The trade unions’ initiative: trade unions play a central role in bargaining.
4) The principles governing the representativeness of trade unions.
The 2008 representativeness reform
Pursuing the restructuring of the IR system, the principles governing the representativeness of trade unions’ were modified in 2008. Since 1966, five trade union confederations have been considered to be representative at the national level: the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the French Democratic Federation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force Ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – confederation générale des cadres, CFE-CGC). And, until recent legislative changes, each trade union, at a local or sectoral level, affiliated with one of these confederations, was also considered to be representative (‘presumption of representativeness’). Other trade-unions (without affiliation) had to prove their representativeness, in the courts, with the representativeness criteria established by law and case law.
On 20th July, 2008, the French parliament adopted a law on ‘social democracy and working time reform’ (FR0808039I), in accordance with the social partners’ ‘Common Position on representativeness and collective bargaining’ (9 April 2008, in French). Regardless of affiliation, representativeness will now depend primarily on the ‘electoral audience’. That is, to be representative and therefore able to participate in negotiations, a trade-union must win at least 10% of the votes at workplace level, the ratio being of 8% at the industry level. It is expected that the trade union landscape will change at the end of the transitional period (March 2013).
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