Unions set the social agenda in the context of parliamentary elections

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At a time when public opinion seems to be losing interest in the campaign for the May/June 1997 parliamentary elections (if opinion polls published in the middle of May are to be believed, less than half the electorate said they were interested in the debates and manifestoes) the trade unions and employers' associations, while not telling their members which way to vote, are voicing their main demands and preparing the forthcoming social agenda.

The trade unions, like others in the political, economic and social arena, were taken by surprise by President Jacques Chirac's decision to call early elections. Many current questions have been put on hold (such as the law on social cohesion - FR9703131N) and negotiations in various sectors and firms have all come to a halt. The reason is that in France the State is the driving force, and the uncertainty factor as to who will make up the next assembly and government seems to wipe out the various independent initiatives taken by employers and unions.

Employers are demanding more free enterprise

The CNPF employers' confederation and its president, Jean Gandois, proclaimed their stance a few days after the dissolution was announced. CNPF's main demands can be summarised in three watch-words: "increased freedom", "less government", and "fewer social regulations" for firms. In Mr Gandois' opinion, "anyone who thinks that the state can protect them from the ground-swell sweeping across the world are mistaken". He added that to delay the disappearance of economically condemned sectors is merely to increase the difficulties by adding additional financial burdens on the country. However, Jean Gandois refuses to transform firms into a "sort of jungle" and "suggests joint participation between employers, unions and the state for the study of an ambitious project for society" so as not to leave the "rank and file and especially the young behind".

Workers' unions take different stances

The main workers' unions have taken a very different position to that of the CNPF in the electoral campaign. Some adopted their stance immediately after the election was announced and do not plan making any further statements. Others have written to the different candidates and are awaiting their replies. Others have come up with a text which restates their normal stance in order to put workers in the picture and to prepare forthcoming initiatives or negotiations during the formation of the new government.

Speeches prior to the opening of the campaign

  • The UNSA (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes) which is an umbrella organisation for many independent unions such as the FEN (Fédération de l'Education nationale), the second largest education union, published a communiqué following the announcement of the early elections in which it expresses its concern at the "dogmatic speeches on less state intervention made by the President of the Republic". In the opinion of this union "more than ever before a strong state, a regulating state, a state guaranteeing social cohesion is necessary. (...) No argument, be it Europe-related, could justify the sacrificing of a state which guarantees the interests of all its people."
  • The CGT-Force Ouvrière does not intend to make any statement during the election campaign, following a well-worn tradition followed since its creation, and it "does not intend to interfere in the political debate which belongs to the people". Marc Blondel is scheduled to be present at a press conference held by the Federation of Public Services of his union at the end of May, at which he will reply to journalists' questions. FO will not tell workers how to vote but considers that the most important thing is the need for "a change in economic policy in line with republican values, which would increase purchasing power, boost economic growth and improve public services, which would meet the collective and individual needs of the population".

Questions for the candidates

  • The CFTC has decided to enter into correspondence with the various parties and candidates asking them to state their positions on the subject of worker participation, the "buzz-word" which is to dominate the policies of the new Parliament and Government. The union has also sent a long questionnaire dealing with employment, organisation of working practices, arbitration, salaries, family policy, education, welfare and Europe.
  • The idea of direct questioning of the candidates has also been adopted by Groupe des dix("Group of 10") which includes a large number of independent unions, most of which are strongly represented in the public sector, and among which some, like SUD ( Solidaires, Unitaires, Démocratiques), have splintered from the CFDT and are critical of its "reformist" ideas. They have adopted a different tone, stressing the need to "change economic reasoning" and make certain "policy changes". This coalition of unions is in favour of a "drastic reduction in the working week", the setting up of "new public services to meet the new demands of society", and an increase in tax on company profits and so on.

General statements

  • The CFE-CGC is to publish a general statement in the middle of May in which it will present its analyses and priorities. Its president, Marc Villebenoît, had already revealed the content of this communiqué immediately after the announcement of early elections by Jacques Chirac. It called for "change" and ordered all politicians to "reject fatalism and any idea of abandonment and to keep control of the economy in order to build a coherent and logical social project".
  • The CFDT describes the attitude of its rank and file as "neither neutral nor partisan". This union has reiterated its union priorities, the most important of which are: "the reduction and overhaul of working time (...) with a goal of 32 hours in order to create more jobs". The union also emphasises the reform of the social security system, with the setting-up of "universal health" insurance and the continuation of government reforms in the way social security is financed, as announced in November 1995. It has also expressed "its commitment to quality public services". According to the leaders of the union, the tone of the statement is not intended to "indicate any preference for any one electoral programme", but rather "to show our role in society and to indicate our priorities". The CFDT does not wish to be bound by preconceived opinions in order to "be able to react freely on future policy decisions". This will not stop it from stating its opinion during the campaign. Its secretary general, Nicole Notat, thus denounced the various parties present in the election whose "manifestoes on employment don't go beyond received ideas".In her opinion, as far as working time is concerned, the political parties should "avoid two pitfalls: decree that the reduction applies to everyone, everywhere and without a loss of salary, or otherwise treat all workers in the same way as far as cuts in salaries are concerned". In the current debate on the working week, the CFDT is betting on increased recourse to the Robien law (FR9705146F) which in her opinion could bring the working week closer to the 32-hour objective, while allowing for the specificities of each sector or company. She is opposed to measures across the board.
  • The CGT has also published a declaration by its executive committee and wishes to see a "new economic dynamic". Its main demands in order to achieve this are: the creation of long-term jobs in industry, services and in the civil service; the reduction of the working week to 35 hours without loss of salary; the raising of salaries (including an increase in the minimum wage to FRF 8,500 per month) to boost consumption; the development of public services and an end to the privatisation programme. Louis Viannet, the secretary general, has announced that the "first step by the CGT", following the elections "will be to ensure that all the speeches stating employment to be a priority will be transformed into concrete initiatives which will lead to the creation of jobs". He also made it clear that "the problems regarding the reduction in working time, the supervision of public money and of redundancies must be dealt with".

Europe in trade union debates

The decision by the President of the French Republic to dissolve Parliament was officially to avoid the concurrence in 1998 of a long election campaign with European decisions on the single currency. It would appear that Europe should be a central issue in the campaign. However, paradoxically, this subject has hardly been broached by politicians. It has, however appeared in statements by the unions and in particular in the texts published by the two with the most members: the CGT and the CFDT.

The CGT has asserted for the first time that "it supports European construction on the condition that it is based on the democratic expression of people as to its social and economic choices; it plays an essential role in providing workers with real guarantees and it provides for full employment; it develops common industrial and research policies ... and promotes the overhaul and development of public services, as well as the creation of regulatory bodies to supervise the circulation of money and deter speculation; it ensures peace and stability..." This is the reason why even though it is not a member of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) it will take part in the demonstration in France on the 10 June (which should have taken place on the 28 May jointly with all other European countries but which was put off due to the election campaign).

The CFDT for its part emphasises the necessity for the implementation of the single currency: "the setting up of the Euro puts the icing on the cake of European construction and its absence would again reduce Europe to a mere free-trade area". However, at the same time, the union is in favour of "interpreting politically the Maastricht guidelines, which must be considered in relation to the economic situation and not according to dogmatic considerations". It would also like to see the incorporation of the social policy Protocol annexed to the Maastricht Treaty and demands that "the question of employment be raised to the same level as economic and monetary union within Community policy". It of course calls for mobilisation to ensure the success of the demonstration on the10 June.


French unions are characterised by their great diversity: diversity in opinion, and in organisation. Certain important periods for the country, for instance during elections, emphasise these differences or divisions. There is one issue, however, which for various reasons is a point of agreement today - relations between the unions and political parties. Some unions like the CGT-FO have, since their creation, been very careful not to show officially their preference and have always refrained from telling their members how to vote. This was not the case for many years with the CGT and the CFDT. The latter decided in 1985 that for the election in 1986 they would no longer come out in favour of the Left, which it had done continuously since 1970. It intended "to respect the freedom of each individual" and especially to be able to retain some leeway by working exclusively in the field of industrial relations at all levels. In its opinion, the safeguarding of a certain "autonomy" was to favour the expression of social problems, no matter who they were dealing with.

As for the CGT, it took the same path but later. In February 1993, prior to the last parliamentary elections, it placed "social matters high in the stakes". Its executive committee declared that: "it was high time that the workers ran the public debate and took a full and constant part in it. As a union the CGT need not tell workers how to vote. It is up to each voter according to his or her conscience to use universal suffrage as he or she sees fit.".

A great part of the union movement had lived for a long time with the conviction that the existence of two branches in the workers' movement, the political branch and the union branch, between which relations varied from conflict and opposition to cooperation, would allow this movement to progress towards profound changes in society. The last 15 years have led to a reassessment of this belief which was for many activists and observers a source of division and gave the French union movement a face that was more ideological than that of its counterparts in other countries. It remains to be seen whether the choice of autonomy will allow the unions in the medium term to recoup the bargaining power necessary to implement the reforms that they advocate. (Alexandre Bilous, IRES)

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