Labour Research May 2017


The French election and the unions

How will the outcome of France’s presidential election impact on the country’s workers and their trade unions? Labour Research investigates.

The results of next month’s second round of elections for the new French president are expected to have a far-reaching impact on politics across Europe. And they will also affect industrial relations and union activities in France.

After the first round of voting in the election on 23 April, it is now clear that the final contest will be between Emmanuel Macron, leader of a new centrist grouping En Marche! (Forward!), who received 23.7% of the vote, and Marine Le Pen, head of the extreme right Front National who received 21.9%. 

The two saw off strong challenges from the right wing Francois Fillon (19.8%) and the left wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.2%).

The campaign so far has covered a wide range of issues, not least the fate of the around 7.6 million people who were born born outside France, and the future of France in Europe. 

However, industrial relations, employment law and the role of the unions have also been important themes, and the final outcome of the election, on 7 May, will determine the direction of policy in these areas as well.

Loi Travail

Central to many of the debates on these issues has been the future of the controversial labour law (Loi Travail), sometimes known as the El Khomri law after the socialist labour minister who pushed it through.

The law was finally adopted in August last year, but only after months of protest and bitter opposition from some, though not all, of France’s union confederations, as well as many socialist members of parliament who opposed their own government over the issue. 

At the height of the action on 31 March 2016, the unions estimated that they brought 1.2 million onto the streets, and even the authorities said that there were 350,000. Running to 181 pages and containing 123 articles, the law covers a wide range of topics, from changes in time off arrangements for more senior personnel, to the right to turn off work phones and tablets in the evening and at weekends (being introduced for the first time as the “right to disconnect”). 

Its opponents reject many of the elements of the El Khomri law, including the plan for a sharp reduction in the role of company doctors — who will no longer be required to examine all new employees — and changes to make dismissals cheaper and easier. However, at the heart of the new law is the introduction of greater flexibility into industrial relations, by changing the rules on bargaining. At present, in most circumstances, company-level agreements can only improve on the terms and conditions set at industry level. 

Collective bargaining 

Collective bargaining in France takes place at national, industry and company level, and at each level there are detailed rules about who can negotiate and the requirements for an agreement to be valid. 

Industry-level agreements are the most important level for negotiation in terms of numbers covered, although the rates they set are generally well below what is actually paid. 

Where unions and employers’ organisations have already signed an agreement at this level on pay, there is an ongoing obligation to negotiate annually on pay rates, and every five years on job classifications.

At company level there is also a requirement for the employer to negotiate annually on pay, working time and other issues where there is a trade union delegate — essentially companies with more than 50 employees. 

However, there is no obligation to reach an agreement, and sometimes the employer will listen to the unions’ demands and then fix pay and conditions unilaterally.

Overall, the obligation to negotiate and the fact that government often extends the terms of industry-level agreements to all employers mean that formal collective bargaining coverage is very high.

However, negotiated pay rates are only part of the picture for most French employees and the use of individualised pay is widespread.

But under the El Khomri law, negotiators at company level can now agree working time arrangements that are less favourable than the relevant industry-level deal. Combined with another change — the ability to call for all-employee votes on company agreements, even where unions representing a majority of employees oppose them — the law’s opponents fear that workers in individual companies will be pressured into accepting poor deals.

The discussion on the new law has played an important role in the campaign. Indeed, it was his opposition to it that helped propel Benoît Hamon to victory in the primary to choose the socialist party’s candidate in the election, easily beating Manuel Valls, the prime minister of the socialist government which introduced the law. 

Further to the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate of the France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, called for the law to be repealed and for the previous “hierarchy of rules” to be re-established so company and industry-level agreements are only able to “provide additional support to employees”.

Le Pen, for the Front National, also calls for the law to be withdrawn, although she does not explain why, and much of her economic programme is directed towards supporting small and very small companies, which, she argues, should be relieved of the burden of “administrative and tax complexity” that they face. 

In contrast, for François Fillon, the candidate of the right wing Les Républicains, and the apparent front-runner until his campaign was derailed by corruption allegations, the new law did not go far enough. He called for all negotiations to be left to the company level and for the labour code to be drastically simplified and reduced from its current 3,400 pages to just 150 pages. 

He also wanted to give employers greater freedom to dismiss their employees, introducing “workplace reorganisation” as a legitimate reason for redundancy for the first time.

Macron also supports the new law. This is perhaps not surprising because, as economics minister under the Hollande presidency until he resigned in August 2016, he was heavily involved in drawing it up. He favours giving precedence to company-level negotiations — with industry-level agreements only having a role as a back-up — where company deals do not exist. Overall, he argues in his programme that “working conditions and salaries [should be] negotiated as close to the ground as possible”. 

He also wants employment law to be simplified, concentrating on a number of key rights, such as the legal limits on working time, the minimum wage and equality between men and women.

The 35-hour week

There has also been discussion over the one element of the French labour relations system that sets it apart from its European counterparts — the 35-hour week. Introduced in 2002 by a previous socialist government as the standard weekly working time, the 35-hour week has subsequently been made slightly more flexible. It is also being affected by the El Khomri law as it allows company agreements to set the overtime premium, paid for weekly hours worked beyond 35 at just 10% rather than the previous obligatory 25%. 

However, in the current election campaign it is being fundamentally questioned. Only the socialists’ Hamon and candidates further to the left called for the standard 35 hours to be fully protected, or even reduced.

Mélenchon wanted the overtime premium to go up to 50%, to produce a return to “the real 35 hours”. Fillon, in contrast, said that he “finally wanted to lift the bar of the 35-hour week”, which he called “a utopia … that ought to be abandoned”. In his view, the public sector should move directly to a 39-hour week, with the private sector following on the basis of individual company agreements, with 39 hours restored as the standard working time.

Le Pen is also willing to see working time increased beyond the current limits, although she would keep 35 hours as the standard. Her programme proposes working time increases being negotiated at industry level, although she argues that this should be compensated through higher pay. Macron favours greater flexibility in terms of working time. Speaking in March, he said: “I do not propose to modify the 35-hour week through the law but through agreements negotiated on a majority basis.” 

He believes that “35 hours work very well in some sectors, but there are sectors where they pose a real problem in terms of competitiveness and organisation”. In these sectors, Macron believes the 35-hour week should be made more “flexible”.

Weekly working time and collective bargaining arrangements are not the only issues of direct concern to the unions that have played an important role in the election campaign. 

Retirement age

Union representation at the workplace has also been discussed, and the candidates have argued over the retirement age. This was increased from 60 to 62 in 2010 by the then centre-right government of Nicolas Sarkozy against fierce union opposition. Fillon called for the age to be increased to 65, and both Hamon and Macron favoured no change in the current arrangements (although the socialist candidate argued for an extension of the grounds on which early retirement was possible). 

In contrast, Le Pen’s programme (like Mélenchon’s), calls for a return to retirement at 60. However, although in this and in other issues Le Pen’s programme seems closer to union demands than those of some other candidates, in the area of race, nationality and the treatment of migrants her policies run directly counter to theirs. 

Reject Front National

As a result, the main unions, while not endorsing specific candidates, have called on their members and supporters to reject the Front National. 

Last month, France’s two biggest union confederations, the CGT and the CFDT, both issued advice urging voters not to back Le Pen.

Frédéric Sève of the CFDT said that his confederation had chosen to emphasise its opposition to the Front National and “decode” its policies which, he said, were for an “unacceptable plan for society” based on national preference. 

At more or less at the same time, the CGT distributed a leaflet, which described the Front National’s policies as “apparently favourable to the workers but in practice backing the bosses”. 

The final decision on France’s next president lies in the hands of French voters. But based on the campaign so far, it is likely that the result will have profound consequences for the country’s unions and industrial relations.

The unions 

The latest official estimates, from 2013, indicate that despite the unions’ ability to mobilise French workers, France has one of the lowest levels of union density (the proportion of employees who are union members) in Europe. 

Just 11.2% of French workers are in unions compared with 24.7% in the UK, and more than 70% in Sweden and Finland. 

Membership is slightly higher among men (12.2%) than among women (10.3%) and twice as high in the public sector (19.8%) as in the private sector (8.7%). 

The union movement is divided into a number of rival confederations, competing for membership, of which the most important are the CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC and CFE-CGC. 

The CGT is generally seen as the most militant of the five, while the CFDT is considered more moderate. FO takes radical stands on some issues but not all. For example, during the passage of the El Khomri law, the protests were led by the CGT and FO, while the CFDT welcomed many of the changes proposed by the government. 

The smaller CFTC describes itself as inspired by Christian social teaching. 

The CFE-CGC primarily represents the interests of higher grade employees, such as senior technicians and middle-management.

In terms of size, the CFDT states that it has the largest membership with around 870,000 members, followed by the CGT on some 670,000. 

FO does not publish figures, but calculated that it had 500,000 members in 2011, although other estimates are lower at around 300,000. 

The two smaller confederations have between 100,000 and 150,000 members each. 

However, membership is not the only indication of union influence in France and, in many ways, not the most important. 

Since 2008, union “representativity” — that is, giving “representative” unions the right to sign agreements — has been measured by the level of support for that confederation’s candidates in works council and other elections. 

Until very recently the CGT led on this measure. However, the latest figures put the CFDT narrowly in the lead.