New law obliges government to consult with social partners prior to labour reforms

On 17 January 2007, the French parliament adopted a new law aimed at modernising social dialogue. The regulations oblige the government to consult with the social partners before proposing any reforms to the labour law. Such provisions could lead to the negotiation of a national cross-sector collective agreement, which would in turn be taken into account in a draft law proposed by the government.

New procedures for consultations and collective bargaining

The 2007 Law on modernising social dialogue (in French) provides for compulsory consultations, before the government can propose any reforms on:

  • individual and collective labour relations;
  • employment;
  • vocational training.

All such reforms would come within the remit of national cross-sector collective bargaining. However, other reforms, which have an indirect impact on labour regulations – such as social protection and tax policies – appear to be excluded from this procedure, as do reforms at sector level.

The new law stipulates that any proposed reforms in the field of industrial relations, employment and vocational training should first be the subject of consultations with the national-level representative trade unions and employer organisations. The government will provide these bodies with a policy document, which presents ‘diagnoses, objectives and principal options’. The social partners will then be able to indicate whether or not they intend to embark on negotiations and how much time they need in order to reach an agreement.

This procedure will not apply in ‘emergency situations’; in such cases, the government would have to justify its decision, which can be legally challenged.

When drawing up its draft law following the consultation procedure, the government is not obliged to adopt the content of a collective agreement as its own. However, depending on the issue at hand, it must submit the draft law to:

  • the National Collective Bargaining Commission (Commission nationale de la négociation collective, CNNC) – for reforms concerning industrial relations;
  • the Higher Employment Committee (Comité supérieur de l’emploi) – for reforms in relation to employment;
  • the National Council for Lifelong Vocational Training (Conseil national de la formation professionnelle tout au long de la vie, CNFPTLV) – for reforms with regard to training.

The social partners who are represented in these bodies therefore have the possibility of assessing whether or not the government’s proposals are in line with any relevant collective agreement and, if necessary, to give their opinion. An initial proposal to combine these consultative bodies in a single ‘social dialogue council’ was abandoned by government.

According to the new law, the government has to present to the CNNC the main policy orientations in the areas concerned each year, as well as its programme of reforms for the next year. At the same time, the social partners must outline the state of progress of cross-sector collective bargaining and their planned programme for the year ahead. Furthermore, the government must present to the parliament an annual report on the state of consultations in the past year.

Consultations on legislation regarding social consultation

In August 2006, the government informed the social partners of its intention to draw up a draft law on social consultations on the basis of the Chertier report on modernising social dialogue (in French, 1.13Mb PDF) (FR0606049I). The latter report had recommended the introduction of prior consultation procedures, in line with the European principle of subsidiarity stipulated in the Maastricht Social Protocol (Articles 138 and 139 of the Treaty of Amsterdam). The proposal was also based on the preamble of the Fillon law on collective bargaining reform of 4 May 2004 (FR0507104F); in this law, the government made a ‘solemn undertaking’, which cannot be legally challenged, to submit any reform of the labour law to collective bargaining.

On the basis of an initial note prepared by the government, and also based on bilateral consultations with the trade unions and employer organisations in the summer of 2006, a draft law was submitted for consultation to the CNNC in September 2006. Almost all of the social partners agreed with the government’s approach.

Issue of representativeness still outstanding

During the September 2006 CNNC meeting, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) proved to be the only organisation expressing regret that the government’s proposals did not go further in ‘democratising’ collective bargaining, leaving the rules on trade union representativeness and the validity of collective agreements intact.

On 5 December 2006 – when the parliament was debating the draft law – the general secretaries of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) and CGT submitted a joint letter to the presidents of all the parliamentary groups, proposing an amendment to the draft law. This amendment proposed establishing a rule for trade union representativeness based on ‘workplace elections concerning all employees’ and also the principle of majority agreements at all levels of collective bargaining. Although the left-wing parties took the proposal on board, the government majority rejected the amendment, arguing that there should be prior consultations on this issue.

At the end of 2006, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin assigned responsibility to the Minister of Labour, Gérard Larcher, to embark on consultations with the social partners on the basis of the recommendations of the Economic and Social Council (Conseil économique et social, CES) ; these consultations are aimed at preparing a law reforming trade union representativeness. In light of the end of the parliamentary session, as well as the presidential and general elections from April to June 2007, the draft law will be the responsibility of the new government.

Udo Rehfeldt, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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