Results of industrial tribunal elections

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On 11 December 2002, private sector employees and employers elected the members of France's joint industrial tribunals, which are responsible for resolving disputes between employers and employees through conciliation or by making rulings. The turn-out fell (to under a third of those eligible to vote), as it has done continuously since 1979 in the five-yearly elections, despite an improved showing on the employers’ side. The results of the 2002 elections did not radically change the balance of power between the trade unions or between the employers’ associations, although there were a number of notable developments.

On 11 December 2002, 16.2 million private-sector employees and 769,600 employers elected 14,610 councillors (prud'hommes) to sit on France's 271 joint industrial tribunal s (conseils de prud'hommes), each of which is divided into specialised sections for management staff, industry, commerce, agriculture and miscellaneous activities.

An old and unique tribunal

As early as 1296, 'valiant men' ('hommes preux') were organised by town councillors and the provost of the merchants into a prud’hommes tribunal in Paris. When he was emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte expanded this court in 1806, but it was not until 1979 that the prud’hommes tribunals were set up over the entire country. Other European countries such as Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal, have chosen similar tribunal systems. However, in all these countries, labour courts also function with professional judges. French industrial tribunals are wholly elected and jointly-run courts. The 271 tribunals are composed of elected non-professional judges, half of whom are employers, and the other half paid employees.

In France, industrial tribunals judge individual cases generated by employment or apprenticeship contracts covered by private law, whether written or oral, open-ended or fixed-term, full-time or part-time, temporary agency or state-subsidised youth employment. Industrial tribunals resolve a very broad spectrum of disputes arising from employment contracts, either through conciliation or by making rulings on issues such as unpaid wages, overtime, paid holiday, qualification levels, promotion, harassment, discrimination, disciplinary procedures and redundancies, as well as individual rights to vocational training and retirement etc.

Procedures in industrial tribunals

Procedures in industrial tribunals aim to be simple and easily accessible. Hearings are oral and, formally, do not require the services of a lawyer. The procedures are as follows.

  1. Each case is heard first in the relevant section of the tribunal (agriculture, commerce, industry, management, miscellaneous activities etc) before a 'conciliation committee' (bureau de conciliation), made up of two prud’hommes councillors (an employee and an employer), who make every effort to resolve the dispute amicably. The conciliation committee does not deliver a verdict: it is the two parties who decide whether or not to agree. The conciliation committee may decide on particular measures (presentation of legal documentation, payslips etc) that are immediately binding. If disagreement persists, the conciliation committee passes the case on to a 'judging committee' (bureau de jugement) and possibly orders an investigation (eg through the appointment of a specialist).
  2. The case is then heard by the judging committee, which is also jointly run, and composed of at least two prud’hommes councillors from the employers’ electoral college and two from the employees’ college. The judging committee hears the parties and studies the case. It may summon witnesses and demand that extra investigatory steps be taken. The judging committee’s decision must be made by an absolute majority, and is binding on the parties. However, if the vote is split evenly, there is a 'final vote', with a professional magistrate assisting the judging committee.
  3. In an emergency, a case may be referred to a joint 'fast-track hearing team', whose jurisdiction covers all the sections of the industrial tribunal. The injunctions made by this team are binding as soon as they are announced, but are provisional - ie they can by amended by the judging committee which then makes a ruling. This team enables urgent measures to be granted in cases where there is relatively little doubt over the facts, to pre-empt damage that may be imminent, or otherwise stop an obviously unlawful state of affairs.
  4. The decisions handed down by the tribunal can be appealed. The content and the procedures of the case are then reviewed by professional judges. Beyond that, an appeal hearing in the Cour de cassation (the highest court in the French judicial system) is possible, but only the procedures, not the content, are reviewed.

Organisation of elections

Since 1979, the election of prud’hommes councillors has taken place all over France every five years. All private sector employees can vote, as well as those working in state-run commercial companies such as SNCF (railways) and EDF (electricity), plus France Télécom and la Poste employees without civil servant status. Unemployed people who have held employment and are seeking work also have a vote.

The electoral register is compiled by the local council, based on employers’ declarations. Voters are split into two electoral colleges (employers and employees) and into sections, depending on the activity of the company they work for or are responsible for as employers.

The prud’hommes election is organised on the basis of slates of candidates. These slates are put together by college and by section for each industrial tribunal. Until very recently, there were few criteria for running a slate, apart from the minimum age requirement of 21 for candidates and the requirement for possession of French nationality. In 1997, this lack of basic criteria enabled candidates defending discriminatory views close to those of the far-right National Front (Front National) to run for election (FR9703133N and FR9711181N). However, the law of 16 November 2001 on combating all forms of discrimination (FR0112152F) added Article L 513-3-1 to the Labour Code, which now governs the running of slates in the prud’hommes elections.

Slates of candidates in 2002

On the employees’ side, the five trade union confederations with nationally representative status ran slates almost everywhere in the country in 2002. These are the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff-General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l'encadrement-Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC), the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) and the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO). Other union organisations such as the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA) and to a lesser extent the Group of 10 Solidarity (G10 Solidaires) coalition, also ran many slates, to oppose the nationally representative confederations' candidates. Another group of unions ran slates only in places where they deemed themselves best suited to represent the local workforce, especially in the overseas départements (DOM) and Corsica.

In the employers’ camp, joint slates under the Employers' Alliance (Union des employeurs, UE) banner were run by the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME), the Craftwork Employers' Association (Union professionnelle artisanale, UPA), the National Federation of Farmers' Unions (Fédération nationale des syndicats d'exploitants agricoles, FNSEA) and the National Union of the Liberal Professions, (Union Nationale des Professions Libérales, UNAPL). The idea of running independent UPA slates, once contemplated by certain crafts industry leaders, often highly critical of MEDEF’s stances (FR0206101N), was ultimately abandoned. The CIDUNATI self-employed organisation, still active among small retailers, also ran a few slates, as did the Centre for Independent French Employers (Centre français des patrons indépendants, CFPI) . However, it was the organisations representing the 'social economy' (mutual insurance societies, cooperatives, and not-for-profit organisations) which caused the major surprise of the 2002 elections in the employers’ college by running 125 slates and 900 candidates in the 'miscellaneous activities' section under the Social Economy' Employers (Employeurs de l’économie sociale, EES) banner.


In the days leading up to the industrial tribunal election on 11 December 2002, observers were highlighting the strong possibility of a very low turn-out. Additionally, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity acknowledged that in some places there had been logistical problems affecting the delivery of electoral material and electors’ identity cards.

The results bore out initial fears on this score. Turn-out in 2002, as a percentage of those eligible to vote, was even lower than previously, dropping below 33% in mainland France - see table 1 below.

Table 1. Voter turn-out in industrial tribunal elections, 1979-2002 (%)
. 1979 1982 1987 1992 1997 2002
Voter turn-out 63.2 58.6 46.0 39.6 33.6 (34.4*) 32.7*

* Mainland France only.

Source: Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity.

In an attempt to boost turn-out, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity allowed a postal vote and encouraged local councils to decentralise polling stations, so that they were as close as possible to the workplace. A simplified postal voting form was added to the bundle of official documents sent to voters’ homes. Polling stations and ballot boxes were set up in private places, even sometimes inside certain workplaces, and monitored by town hall staff. The success of these actions however was limited, with a fall in turn-out that was less marked than on previous occasions yet still evident.

However, the ever falling overall turn-out hides the fact that there was a noticeable increase in voting among employers, who have traditionally been less keen to vote than employees. After the poll, Denis Gautier-Savagnac, the vice-chair of MEDEF, warmly welcomed 'the very high increase in turn-out, to almost 30%' for employers (26.7% in mainland France). Nevertheless, the employers’ turnout is still poorer than that of employees.

Test of union representativeness

Without publicly admitting it, trade unions recognise that the industrial tribunal elections are a 'full-scale' test of their representativeness in the private sector. Even more than the annual aggregate results of works council elections (FR0011102F), and with no new elections for positions on the boards of jointly-run social security funds since 1983, the five-yearly industrial tribunal elections are a de facto gauge of changes in the comparative influence of the various unions.

The planned reforms recently announced by the Minister of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity in respect of pensions and the rules governing collective bargaining had the effect of raising the stakes of the December 2002 elections for the unions (FR0209105F). Tensions between the unions have mounted considerably, particularly after the lorry drivers’ dispute in late 2002, when the strategies of several unions were diametrically opposed (FR0212102N).

The major characteristic of the industrial tribunal elections, over the 20 years or so that they have been held, has been the high degree of long-term stability in the trends observed - see table 2 below

Table 2. Trade union support in industrial tribunal elections, 1979-97 (%)
Union 1979 1982 1987 1992 1997
CGT 42.4 36.8 36.3 33.4 32.9
CFDT 23.1 23.5 23.1 23.7 25.4
CGT-FO 17.4 17.8 20.5 20.4 20.5
CFTC 6.9 8.5 8.3 8.6 7.6
CFE-CGC 5.2 9.6 7.4 6.9 5.9

Source: Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity.

In 2002, each union wanted to maintain or improve on its performance in the last election in 1997 (FR9712185F). However, the state of mind and objectives of each union was noticeably different. On the eve of its national conference, and after a very major shift in political direction since 1997, CGT was seeking both to retain its leading place and to slow down or even turn round its uninterrupted loss of influence over the last 20 years.

CFDT, aware that its new general secretary François Chérèque was relatively unheard of compared with his predecessor Nicole Notat (FR0206103N), was attempting above all to safeguard gains made in 1997, and particularly to retain the leading position in the management section it had taken in 1997.

CGT-FO approached this vote in a relatively confident frame of mind, as its general secretary, Marc Blondel, is the best-known union leader in France. Moreover, the leadership of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions (Confédération des syndicats libres, CSL), a union organisation that is very well-supported in certain industries, especially motor manufacturing, but which has no representative status at intersectoral level, had recently joined CGT-FO.

CFE-CGC’s objective was to win back all or part of the ground it had lost in 1997, particularly to CFDT. CFTC, after changes in its leadership during its recent conference (FR0212101N), was looking first and foremost to maintain its positions after the loss of 1 percentage point in its vote in 1997, and not to lose out in influence to newer unions, on the eve of difficult talks on the rules governing collective bargaining and a potential challenge to the rules on trade unions' representative status (FR9909104F, FR0006170F, FR0112114N and FR0201111F).

Conversely, UNSA, created out of several independent unions principally based in the civil service and state education system, saw the 2002 industrial tribunal elections as a test of its popularity in the private sector, with the goal of competing on equal terms with CFTC and CFE-CGC.

Initial results

The initial results of the elections on 11 December 2002 indicate that the vote did not radically challenge the balance of power between the unions, but it did mark certain developments - see table 3 below.

Table 3. Trade union support in the 2002 industrial tribunal election (%)
Union Vote
CGT 32.1
CFDT 25.2
CGT-FO 18.3
CFTC 9.7
UNSA 5.0
G10 Solidaires 1.5

Source: Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity.

At the head of the table, support for CGT and CFDT remained relatively stable, although they experienced a slight decline (from 32.4% to 32.1% and from 25.4% to 25.2% respectively), and the size of the gap separating them from the rest remained the same. CGT-FO suffered a serious loss (from 20.5% to 18.3%), and returned to the position it had occupied in the early 1980s. Conversely, CFE-CGC (up from 5.9% to 7.0%), and especially CFTC (up from 7.6% to 9.7%), won back the level of support they both appeared to have lost in the previous elections. CFTC achieved its highest ever vote in an industrial tribunal election.

UNSA made a breakthrough into the private sector (winning 5% of the vote), and now intends to act as a fully-fledged union confederation. The G10 Solidaires coalition, which notably includes the Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD) unions, received a modest vote, though it was the first time it had contested the election.

Good results achieved by the nationalist or pro-independence unions in Corsica, French Guyana - the Federation of Guyanese Workers (Union des travailleurs guyanais, UTG) - and Guadeloupe - the General Federation of Guadeloupe Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs de Guadeloupe, UGTG) - are also worth noting.

The vote in the management staff section confirmed the recovery of CFE-CGC (which specifically represents this group) in this section, without it actually being able to catch up CFDT, although the latter’s vote fell considerably. CGT and CGT-FO’s scores were eroded in this section, while CFTC also made ground here as in other sections. However, it was UNSA that succeeded in making the most spectacular breakthrough in the management section - see table 4 below.

Table 4. Trade union support in industrial tribunal elections, management section, 1997-2002 (%)
Union 1997 2002
CGT 16.22 15.81
CFDT 31.52 28.64
CGT-FO 10.36 9.48
CFTC 9.94 11.43
CFE-CGC 21.88 22.81
UNSA 2.04 8.16
CSL 3.42 0.25
G10 0.41 1.29

Source: Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity.

As noted above, in the overall context of falling turn-out, more employers voted in 2002 than in previous industrial tribunal elections. The Employers’ Alliance coalition easily retained its leading position, but lost a considerable amount of ground - see table 2 below. The EES social economy employers' grouping, using a discourse that differed intentionally from that of MEDEF and its allies, immediately found a space to operate in, winning over 11% of the vote. It remains to be seen whether this was the prelude to other initiatives or just a 'mood swing'.

Table 5. Voting in the employers’ electoral college in the industrial tribunal elections, 1997-2002 (%)
. 1997 2002
Turn-out 21.0 26.7
UE (MEDEF, CGPME, UPA , UNAPL and FNSEA) 87.98 80.10
EES _ 11.30
CFPI _ 1.39
CIDUNATI 0.75 0.72
Others 5.35 6.47

Source: Ministry of Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity.


The uninterrupted decline in turn-out at prud’hommes elections since 1979 is all the more surprising since the industrial tribunals are still a popular institution. The methods of organisation, mobilisation and voting itself have to be rethought if the risk of further weakening this unique tribunal is to be avoided.

In terms of the employees’ voting, the 2002 elections accentuated the impression of ever more serious fragmentation in the French union movement, which neither helps outside observers’ attempts to understand it, nor helps its penetration among French workers, nor adds to its ability to have 'clout' in international decision-making circles and organisations.

As for the employers, there is a degree of difficulty in grouping together the many aspects of French employers into one electoral coalition. The sudden emergence and electoral success of the 'social economy' employers have underlined this difficulty.

In this context, and if the government’s goal is really to put forward a reform of the rules governing collective bargaining that strengthens the social partners’ role, there is much still to do. (Maurice Braud, IRES)

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