EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Quality in work and employment — France

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  • Observatory: EurWORK
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  • Published on: 01 July 2007

Anne-Marie Nicot

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

In France, for the past ten years, the employment issues has been the major concern of policy makers. Different solutions have been put forward by different governements : working time reduction, deregulation, etc. Whatever the initial purpose, all these policies contributed, more or less, to a general evolution toward more flexibility, which does not always result in an improvement of the quality of work for all : some sub-groups of workers (unqualified, younger workers etc.) are subject to deteriorating employment conditions (precariousness, involuntary part-time work etc.) with difficult working conditions (atypical working times, physically arduous work (penibilite) etc.). Activity rates remain very low for workers over the age of 50.

1. The importance of quality in work and employment

The issues of quality in work and employment are, in the facts if not always in the debates, closely related to the issues of unemployment. Different types of policies have been launched, responding to different economic conceptions, with different results on the quality of work and employment.

One of the way chosen has been to reduce the cost of work, mainly through the exemption of payroll for companies that hire specific types of population (young, etc.). This policy has been led for many years, by all the governments, and has resulted in the multiplication of specific contracts. In 2005, 19,8 billion of euros were spent for 46 different systems of subsidies with poor results, as under lined by the Government Accounting Office, in a non published report.

A part of the inefficiency of this system can be attributed to a phenomenon of substitution (workers being hired more on the possibility to benefit of exemption than on competencies), and also its opacity. In the present debate, the social partners are questioning this system for several reasons, the major one being its working as a "low wage push" (a system that contributes to increase the number of low wages and the fall-off for all the classification scale).

Another solution explored for job creation was the reduction of working time. The 1998 law planned the introduction of the 35 hours as the legal working time. Assessments show that this working time reduction has contributed to the creation of about 350.000 jobs, and has had contrasted effects on the working conditions : improvement for some categories, and deterioration for others ( The deterioration mainly is related to a general work intensification, and measures that allowed a more flexible working times and that have been used by some employers to precisely adjust working hours to the work load, resulting in unsocial working times.

Another possible policy for job creation is the reduction of the labour regulation. Some actions have been done in this direction since 2002. One major changes introduced in this field was a law in 2005 that challenges the hierarchy of texts : in a company agreement, under strict conditions of representative quality of signatories, it will be possible to introduce conditions that depart from the rules defined in the branch agreement.

Another form of deregulation is the introduction of new types of contracts that offer more flexibility for lay-off (no notice, no justification, etc.). The first contract of that type, the CNE (reserved for small companies) was introduced in 2005. The second, the CPE (for young under 26) was voted in February 2006 but, after weeks of strikes in schools and universities, the heading on to a major political crisis lead to the withdrawal of the text.

As most of these evolutions tend to lead to a lesser protection of workers, and a setback of the quality of work and employment, the government has set up different programs ("Health at work plan", "Concerted action plan for seniors employment", etc.) in 2005 and 2006.

2. Career and employment security

In France, the debate on flexicurity, and the "Nordic model" has emerged in 2004 to find a path for solution to everlasting problems of high rate of unemployment for young, low rate of activity for elders, dual work market, high rate of structural unemployment (and especially long term unemployment) along with high level of social expenses. After the Sapir Report to the European Commission (Globalisation and the reform of European Social Models), M. Camdessus made a report for the French Ministry of Economy and Finance ( in which these problems are pointed and solutions are proposed after a reference to experience of other countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark and United-Kingdom). In the same period, the members of the Parliament, through its commission for Finance and Economy, made a report on the Danish work market ( and the Labour Minister organised a trip with the French social partners in Copenhagen to study the flexicurity system. At the beginning of 2005 a "Social Cohesion plan" was adopted (

Among other innovations, this plan introduced of a new (more flexible) work contract : the CNE offers a great facility for the employer to end the contract during the first 2 year (no justification, no preliminary notice). This type of contract, initially reserved to companies under 20 employees, was to be extended to all companies for the hiring of young under 26 through the CPE. Presented and adopted by the Parliament at the beginning of February 2006, the CPE generated a major social crisis, with weeks of strike in the schools and universities, supported by punctual workers (who are also parents) strikes. Through this crisis, students, workers and trade unions showed an opposition to evolutions that mainly increased the flexibility, and not much the security. This crisis also brought to the public debate that the French model, with its rigidities, was increasingly unequal : while the situation of some worker is quite preserved, more and more people, especially young and elder, are kept in precarious situations and bear all the constraints of the adapting to the global market.

After these events, to face the issues of this dual work market, the Trade Unions have introduced a new concept in their negotiations : making the professional career safer. It takes into account the fact that companies need some flexibility in the sizing of their work force, but emphasize the necessity for a collective support for the workers concerned, and for the guarantee a minimal professional security for all.

Actually, in the recent year, the security side of the flexicurity concept has remained quite in the back-burner of the French labour policies. Much money has been spent for the development of subsidised work contracts (cf. question 1). But, some major factors such as investment in initial education and, moreover, vocational training remain low and very unequal (the less qualified actually benefit less of vocational training).

In 2006, the Unemployment Agency has been reformed in order to enhance the monitoring and support of the unemployed workers – this reform is to close to assess its outcomes.

3. Health and well being

The national surveys (the 1998 WCS and the 2003 SUMER survey) show that the traditional sources of physical constraints at work are not declining, while new kinds of concern, related to psychosocial factors, emerge ( As a symptom of this evolution, in ten years, between 1991 and 2001, the number of MSD declared as a professional disease shift from about 5000 to 25000. This pathology, at the crossroad of physical and psychosocial constraints (lack of leeway, of possibilities of cooperation, etc.), now represents 75 % of the declared pathologies.

Issues related to stress and other psychosocial factors are a growing subject of concern in the companies, and for Trade Unions. However, the European framework agreement on work related stress, signed by ETUC, UNICE/UEAPME and CEEP in 2004 is still not implemented in France. National social partners have decided to include these questions in their negotiations on hardness at work (see below). As a result, the main framework on these issues is given by the legislation, through a law, in 2002, on moral harassment (for which the criminal responsibility of the employer can be engaged), and through the obligation to include psychosocial risks in the Unique Document of risks assessment and prevention. An extensive assessment of stress has also been launched through the SUMER survey : in complement to the main body questionnaire, the Karasek questionnaire was to be filled by the workers (results to be published).

A national Plan on Health at Work was issued by the government in 2005 ( This Plan points out the concerns on MSD, psychosocial factors and professional cancers (according to institutional estimates, only one out of ten professional cancer would be declared as such). To deal with these issues, the Plan includes a set of actions organised in 4 groups :

  • develop a strong and independent scientific expertise,

  • mobilize the research and training institutions on issues of health at work

  • enhance the efficiency and targeting of control on the regulation applying,

  • stimulate the preventive actions in companies

However, 36 % of the blue collar workers aged between 50 and 59 quit work prematurely, and for 15 % of them this is due to a work accident or a professional disease. Thus, the objectives of increasing the activity rate for seniors (which is very low in France : 37 % for the people aged between 55 and 64) are connected to health issues. The national 2006-2010 Plan of Actions for Seniors Employment ( includes the specific targeting of prevention actions and funds for this population. However, in this plan, the major part of actions are oriented on vocational training and career management.

The related issues of ageing workers and health are also debated by the social partner at the national level in negotiations on "hardness". They result from the 2003 pension system reform which specified that in some sectors and occupation, derogation to legal retirement age could be negotiated to compensate the "hardness" of work (defined as exposures which reduce the expectancy of life in good health). The negotiation are heading on slowly.

Regarding the specific issue of women's health at work, the disciplines involved in these issues remain widely gender blind and few studies are produced.

4. Skills development

The framework of the French professional training system in companies was settled in 1971. It includes a professional training right, and the obligation for companies to spend a certain percentage of the wage bill (1,6 % for companies over 10 workers, 0,55 % for others in 2005) in professional training (if this amount is not directly invested by the employer, the latter pays it to a body in charge of the funds collection and management). However, the benefit of this system has remained, in fact, concentrated, by large, to the most qualified workers, working in large companies, and under 50 years old. And many assessments have pointed that, in spite of the important amounts spent, this system has missed the purposes of social promotion and skills adaptation of worker – and prevent unemployment.

The difficulties of the professional training to promote skill development for all has been all the more prejudicial since about 150.000 young leave school every year without qualification.

To face these issues the social partners have launched negotiations that ended by the conclusion, in September 2003, of a National Inter-professional Agreement (NIA) between the social partners on life long training. The NIA was completed by a law, issued on may 4th 2004. The law and the NIA put the branches on the foreground for the definition of the professional training policies, and 130 branch agreements have been signed since 2003.

On the practical side, the NIA developed existing tools : competencies assessment, company training plans, Validation of the Experience Assets (VAE), etc. It also introduced new tools (training passport, professionalizing contract for young, etc). One of the most popular innovations was the creation of an Individual Training Right (DIF) of 20 hours per year for each non fixed term worker, used on the initiative of the worker.

After 2 years of existence, it seems however that this new system has missed one of the objectives targeted by the social partners (making access to professional training less complex and opaque) since, according to polls, workers and employers are interested by the tools proposed but face difficulties to actually access to them.

A formal assessment of the results of the NIA is being conducted by the Labour ministry (results to come).

The Validation of the Experience Assets (VAE) is also quite a recent tool, that offers the possibility for the persons to obtain degrees of a diploma or qualifications through an assessment of the competencies they developed in professional or non professional activities.

However, simultaneously to all these reforms, the actual national investment in professional training related to the GDP has decreased at the beginning of the decade. The last figures (2003) show a stabilisation at a level of 23 billion euros, representing 1,47 % of the GDP. This global evolution hides contrasted situations : companies' investment are stable, while the expenses of the local communities (Régions) and the Unemployment Agency (UNEDIC) grow quickly (respectively 5% and 15 %). However, the latter represent quite marginal amounts (9 % and 5 % of the national expenses) compared to the former (41 %).

5. Work life balance

The work life balance is a recurrent issue debated in France. However, it is not an issue on which the debate focuses directly, but rather as an outcome of the policies for unemployment reduction, promotion of gender equity, and also in the field of demography, education and urban planning. Feminist advocates and Family associations are frequently more active protagonists of these issues than Trade Unions, at the national level.

Thus, the debates on the working time reduction, that started in 1994 and lead to the "35 hours law" of 1998, was articulated on 3 major points. The main purpose of the reduction was jobs creation through a "work sharing". A better work life balance was expected from it also. But, on the other side, as wages were not proportionally reduced, employers introduced organizational measures that increased work intensity and working time flexibility.

At the end, the outcomes of the 35 hours for the work life balance greatly depend on the local negotiation and the balance found between flexibility for the production and flexibility for family and social life. The work intensification also had an impact on the use of the liberated time. And surveys demonstrates that the 35 hours have had a very contrasted impact on quality of work and life.

It is to be noted that the progressive extension of the 35 hours to all the companies and worker was stopped by the governmental change in 2002 – the new one has even introduced the possibility for companies to go back on the working time reduction they had concluded.

Even now, the working time issues still remain a major source of concern, especially for women with young children - since the domestic task sharing remain, in general, very unbalanced. Having children has a double impact on women's work (and almost nil for men) : withdrawal of the work market, and shift to part-time work. A large part of women who stopped working for children breeding would have preferred to keep their work, but they did not manage to get the necessary adaptation of their working hours (

For instance, many women work, frequently part time, in the sectors such as retail trade that impose working times are hardly compatible with family life such as working on Saturday. In this context, extending the opening of shops on Sunday and official holidays (the number of days is presently defined by administrative order) is a very controversial issue with a strong implication of the Trade Unions, leading sometimes to legal procedures. In June 2006, the Sunday opening of the 64 shops in a shopping centre was prohibited by a justice order.

At the local level, work life balance issues are also dealt with through the child minding system policies (number of places offered in day care centres and their localisation), nursery schools (some cities accept, by dispensation, children of 2 years and 6 months), urban planning (a rapid growth of the lodging costs in city-centres has lead a growing part of the population to live in distant places and commute everyday, making work life balance more complex).

Annex – Country data

Place of work and work organisation EU27 FR
q11f. Working at company/organisation premises 72.8 75.7
q11g. Teleworking from home 8.3 7.0
q11j. Dealing directly with people who are not employees (e.g. customers) 62.4 70.0
q11k. Working with computers 45.5 53.3
q11l. Using internet/email for work 36.0 42.0
q20a_a. Short repetitive tasks of <1m 24.7 24.9
q20a_b. Short repetitive tasks of <10m 39.0 35.4
q20b_a. Working at very high speed 59.6 49.7
q20b_b. Working to tight deadlines 61.8 54.3
q21a. Pace of work dependent on colleagues 42.2 38.4
q21b. Pace of work dependent on direct demands from customers, etc. 68.0 73.4
q21c. Pace of work dependent on numerical production/performance targets 42.1 55.1
q21d. Pace of work dependent on automated equipment/machine 18.8 17.1
q21e. Pace of work dependent on boss 35.7 35.5
q22a. Have to interrupt a task in order to take on an unforeseen task 32.7 37.9
q24a. Can choose/change order of tasks 63.4 72.0
q24b. Can choose/change methods of work 66.9 67.9
q24c. Can choose/change speed of work 69.2 70.1
q25a. Can get assistance from colleagues if asked 67.6 50.8
q25b. Can get assistance from superiors/boss if asked 56.1 36.7
q25c. Can get external assistance if asked 31.6 16.3
q25d. Has influence over choice of working partners 24.2 23.4
q25e. Can take break when wishes 44.6 52.2
q25f. Has enough time to get the job done 69.6 72.6
q26a. Task rotation 43.7 34.3
q26b. Teamwork 55.2 46.4
q31. Immediate boss is a woman 24.5 25.2
Job content and training    
q23a. Meeting precise quality standards 74.2 76.1
q23b. Assessing quality of own work 71.8 83.0
q23c. Solving unforeseen problems 80.8 86.0
q23d. Monotonous tasks 42.9 40.8
q23e. Complex tasks 59.4 57.2
q23f. Learning new things 69.1 72.3
q25j. Able to apply own ideas in work 58.4 64.5
q27. Job-skills match: need more training 13.1 10.5
q27. Job-skills match: correspond well 52.3 44.0
q27. Job-skills match: could cope with more demanding duties 34.6 45.6
q28a1. Has undergone paid-for training in previous 12 months 26.1 24.4
Violence, harrassment and discrimination    
q29a. Threats of physical violence 6.0 6.9
q29b. Physical violence from colleagues 1.8 2.8
q29c. Physical violence from other people 4.3 7.1
q29d. Bullying/harassment 5.1 7.7
q29f. Unwanted sexual attention 1.8 1.5
q29g. Age discrimination 2.7 2.4
Physical work factors    
q10a. Vibrations 24.2 21.8
q10b. Noise 30.1 31.9
q10c. High temperatures 24.9 26.7
q10d. Low temperatures 22.0 23.9
q10e. Breathing in smoke, fumes, powder or dust, etc. 19.1 19.9
q10f. Breathing in vapours such as solvents and thinners 11.2 13.5
q10g. Handling chemical substances 14.5 16.6
q10h. Radiation 4.6 3.7
q10i. Tobacco smoke from other people 20.1 19.9
q10j. Infectious materials 9.2 9.9
q11a. Tiring or painful positions 45.5 52.8
q11b. Lifting or moving people 8.1 10.9
q11c. Carrying or moving heavy loads 35.0 39.2
q11d. Standing or walking 72.9 74.9
q11e. Repetitive hand or arm movements 62.3 60.7
q11m. Wearing personal protective clothing or equipment 34.0 27.8
Information and communication    
q30b. Consulted about changes in work organisation, etc. 47.1 42.8
q30c. Subject to regular formal assessment of performance 40.0 27.5
q12. Well-informed about health and safety risks 83.1 68.9
q32. Consider health or safety at risk because of work 28.6 23.1
q33. Work affects health 35.4 26.9
q33a_a… hearing problems 7.2 4.4
q33a_b... problems with vision 7.8 6.9
q33a_c... skin problems 6.6 4.4
q33a_d… backache 24.7 21.6
q33a_e… headaches 15.5 11.9
q33a_f… stomach ache 5.8 6.4
q33a_g… muscular pains 22.8 18.8
q33a_h… respiratory difficulties 4.7 3.2
q33a_i… heart disease 2.4 1.5
q33a_j...injury(ies) 9.7 9.1
q33a_k...stress 22.3 18.3
q33a_l...overall fatigue 22.5 20.1
q33a_m...sleeping problems 8.7 9.1
q33a_n...allergies 4.0 3.7
q33a_o...anxiety 7.8 10.8
q33a_p... Irritability 10.5 11.4
q35. Able to do same job when 60 58.2 48.6
q34a_d. Absent for health problems in previous year 22.9 19.4
q34b_ef. Average days health-related absence in previous year 4.6 5.5
Work and family life    
q18. Working hours fit family/social commitments well or very well 79.4 80.9
q19. Contacted about work outside normal working hours 22.1 8.3
ef4c. Caring for and educating your children every day for an hour or more 28.8 34.6
ef4d. Cooking and housework 46.4 51.5
Job satisfaction    
q36. Satisfied or very satisfied with working conditions 82.3 82.1
q37a_ef. I might lose my job in the next 6 months 13.7 7.7
q37b_ef. I am well paid for the work I do 43.2 35.7
q37c_ef. My job offers good prospects for career advancement 31.0 36.6
Structure of workforce    
q2d_ef. Seniority (mean years) 9.7 10.1
Working time    
q8a_ef. Mean usual weekly working hours 38.6 35.5
q8b. % usually working five days per week 65.1 71.4
q9a. % with more than one job 6.2 3.0
q13_ef. Daily commuting time (return, in minutes) 41.6 37.1
q14e_ef. Long working days 16.9 13.8
q16a_a. Work same number of hours each day 58.4 56.4
q16a_b. Work same number of days each week 74.0 75.0
q16a_c. Work fixed starting and finishing times 60.7 61.5
q16a_d. Work shifts 17.3 14.9
q17a. % with less flexible schedules 65.3 64.4
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