Employee Representatives in France: Employers’ Perceptions and Expectations Towards Improved Industrial Relations

  • Aurélien ColsonEmail author
  • Patricia Elgoibar
  • Francesco Marchi
Open Access
Part of the Industrial Relations & Conflict Management book series (IRCM)


The first part of the chapter provides an overview of historical, legal, political, and cultural factors which have shaped the system of industrial relations in France to this day. Drawing on the quantitative results of an on-line survey and on the qualitative analysis of a series of interviews with a sample of HR managers in France, part 2 and 3 analyze how employers perceive employee representatives when it comes to social dialogue: eight factors impacting the quality of industrial relations are summarized. Building on this, part 4 introduces eight suggestions to improve the quality of social dialogue in France.


France Industrial relations Social dialogue Trade unions Negotiation Trust Conflict 

5.1 Historical Context of Industrial Relations and the Labor Movement in France

5.1.1 The System of Industrial Relations in France: A Centralized, Conflict-prone, Tradition

Un pays qui n’aime pas négocier?’ (‘a country that does not like negotiating’): such was the—somehow depressed—conclusion of Jean-Paul Jacquier, analyzing his experience as trade-union leader (CFDT) in France (Thuderoz and Giraud-Héraud 2000). Indeed, industrial relations in France have had to cope with political and sociological features, deeply rooted in history, which do not leave lots of room for negotiation and cooperative social dialogue. Coined as exception française or “French exception” by Furet et al. (1988), these features can be summarized under three headings.

First, the founding episode of the French Revolution in 1789, followed by similar popular insurgencies (1830, 1848, 1870, a list to which May 1968 could be added; Winock 1986), created a long-lasting preference towards the direct and conflictual expression of diverging interests, at the expense of patient deal-making (Sellier 1984). To this day, when French strikers demonstrate on the streets of Paris1, or burn wood pallets in front of their shut-down plant, they more or less unconsciously continue this long-held tradition (Sirot 2002). In the 1970s and 1980s, while unemployment was climbing, employees turned to less eruptive actions, described by Morel (1981) as the Cold Strike. However, in the last 15 years conflicts have emerged again (Groux 1998) as the French industrial sector is downsizing fast. In 2009, the number of days of strike per 1000 employees was 136 in France, compared to 17 in Germany (INSEE; Bundesagentur für Arbeit). Some social conflicts became especially violent, e.g. Cellatex (Larose 2001) and others (e.g. Molex, Caterpillar, Goodyear, etc.).

Second, the French Jacobin state has for a long time tried to maintain centralized control over the labor system, at the expense of social groups i.e. industrial relations partners and negotiation actors (Gantzer 2011). The decree d’Allarde and the law Le Chapelier (March–June 1791) forbade the creation of workers association and any form of trade unions. The state only would, on a unilateral basis, pass laws regulating the labor system, e.g., on child labor (1841). In 1884 the Third Republic granted the liberty to form workers’ associations, opening the way for the creation of the first trade-unions—notably the CGT in 1895, influenced by Marxism and then the Communist Party, and the CFTC in 1919, influenced by Christian thought (Andolfatto 2013).

A third complicating factor for industrial relations in France is influenced by Roman and written law: voted in Parliament, the law is the supreme expression of the nation’s unity (Carré de Malberg 1984), at the expense of ad hoc, negotiated, agreements. This hierarchy of norms has prevented industrial relations partners to negotiate much at the level of the firm for most of the twentieth century. It is only since 1982 that conventions negotiated at the lower levels of the pyramid (e.g. the firm) started superseding, under certain conditions, the legal regulations from the higher levels (i.e. the law or government’s decrees). This was a turning point, introduced by one of the four Lois Auroux passed by the new Socialist government following President Mitterrand’s election in 1981, and which profoundly modernized the industrial relations system—no less than a third of the labor legal system was changed (Le Goff 2003).

The result of these three intertwined features is that industrial relations do not find in France a favorable context (Adam et al. 1972). On the contrary, they are the target of recurring critiques—as negotiated processes generally speaking (Colson 2009).

When it comes to industrial relations, the legal system has improved in the last thirty years, building on the Lois Auroux. One of these laws (13 November 1982) created an obligation to negotiate once a year, in all companies, on wages and the organization of labor. Then a series of laws passed by left- or right-centered governments increasingly favored negotiation as a legitimate decision making system for industrial relations: Lois Delebarre (1986), de Robien (1993), Aubry (1998–1999), and Fillon (2004) notably. Thanks to a law passed on 31 January 2007, any reform on labor issues must be preceded by a consultation of labor organizations, possibly leading to a negotiation; if they reach a negotiated agreement, then it must form the basis of the new legal reform to be voted in Parliament.

5.1.2 Actors of Industrial Relations in France: Towards Improved Representativeness?

Following World War II, the state unilaterally designated in 1950 four trade-unions as representative, and therefore able to engage into negotiations leading to binding agreements: Confédération générale du travail or CGT (with strong links to the Parti Communiste Français, then the leading party on the left), CGT-Force ouvrière or FO (resulting from a split-off with CGT in 1948 along more reformist a line), Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens (CFTC), and Confédération générale des cadres (CGC, targeting white-collars employees). In 1964, a split-off from CFTC created the reformist Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT), which was also recognized as representative in 1966. No other trade-union was registered as representative at the national level.

This system created a de facto monopoly of representativeness, no matter how many employees actually joined the trade-unions, or voted for them in labor elections. This had become an increasing difficulty, since the proportion of employee joining a trade-union has constantly decreased; in 2009, the trade-union density was 7.8 % in France (OECD)—i.e. the lowest rate of OECD countries, with the exception of Turkey. Besides, this average hides the fact that the rate is around 9 % in the public sector, and therefore as low as 5 % in the French private sector (Gantzer 2011).

In addition, under the erga omnes principle in French labor laws, any negotiated deal accepted by one trade-union in a given company was deemed legitimate and applicable to all employees of that company, no matter the actual representativeness of the said trade-union. This has further created a growing disconnection between trade-unionists and the very employees they pretend to represent (Amadieu 1999; Andolfatto and Labbé 2006). Clearly such as system was counter-productive and discouraged workers’ genuine involvement (Tixier 2007).

Two major changes, however, have been introduced by a law passed on 20 August 2008 in order to modernize the system of industrial relations. First, it improved the conditions under which trade-unions can be considered as representative, and therefore take part in negotiations. Seven criteria for trade-union representativeness have been introduced, including a minimum of 8 % in labor votes. The first elections under the new system were held in March 2013, and set the scene for the next five years. The turnover was 42.8 %, out of (only) 12.7 million employees registered (Ministère du Travail). Results were the following: CGT (26.8 %), CFDT (26 %), FO (15.9 %), CFTC (9.3 %), CGC (9.3 %). Two new contenders did not get enough votes: UNSA (4.3 %) and SUD (3.5 %). These results are important because the reformist bloc (CFDT, CFTC, CGC) has won a narrow majority over the more radical bloc (CGT, FO).

Second, as of 1 January 2009, this law put an end to the abovementioned erga omnes principle, and replaced it with the system of the accord majoritaire: a negotiated agreement will be valid if it is supported by trade-unions representing at least 30 % of employee votes, and if within 8 days it is not opposed by trade-unions representing at least 50 % of employee vote. In addition to this, the law extended the possibility to engage negotiations in small and medium enterprises even though there are no trade-unions.

Both of these changes—trade-union representativeness, accord majoritaire—clearly improve the system of industrial relations in France. Yet, it might still be too early to see concrete evolutions—as surveys and interviews with employers seem to indicate.

5.2 Current Situation of the Employee Representatives (ERs): What do Human Resources Managers Say?

This section summarizes the most relevant findings on the profile of the ERs, as they appear in the interviews carried out with employers in France. These features are in line with, and further illustrate, the overview of the French industrial relations system introduced in the previous section.

  1. 1.

    A window of opportunity for change? According to employers, two factors reinforce each other at the moment to prompt a change of scenery in French industrial relations: first, the abovementioned legal reform of representativeness and of process rules for social dialogue; second, the on-going economic and social crisis, which calls for rapid change in order to maintain the competitiveness of most sectors of the French economy. It is increasingly difficult for anyone (including ERs) to deny that business as usual is no longer a valid option. For instance, the recent financial crisis has badly hit the banking sector: ‘in a matter of two years, ERs understood they had to cooperate in order to help save their company’, said an employer in this sector. However, the crisis also affects the trust between management and workers. As one HR manager in the service sector expressed: ‘Trust would increase if the company would be stable. This is not the case nowadays due to the crisis’. Such an evolution appears mixed, however, depending on the level of exposure of business sectors to international competition.

  2. 2.

    Dispersion of trade unions . In spite of the 2008 law on representativeness, ERs remain split into five main organizations (CGT, CFDT, FO, CGC, CFTC), plus two others which may play an important role in some business sectors or firms (UNSA, SUD), plus still several others which might be relevant at the local level only. This dispersion generates two difficulties, according to HR managers. First, trade-unions enter into a political competition, especially in the perspective of ERs elections (which was the case in 2013): most seem to believe that having an aggressive electoral platform will help them win votes. Second, most employers agree that having divided interlocutors in front of them at the negotiation table does not help construct a fruitful social dialogue. In that, sometimes agreements are blocked because the unions cannot find a common opinion within them. One HR manager in the service sector interpreted: ‘In a group of 30 it’s difficult to believe they all think the same; and as they do not want to show they don’t agree they don’t take any position, and don’t give answers, blocking the negotiation’.

  3. 3.

    The structure of worker representation remains too complex and formal. The 2008 law did not touch the overall structure of employee representation, which remains three-layered: trade-unions function at the national level, at the level of the business sector (branche), and then at the level of the firm (the bigger ones having several committees for employee representations and social dialogue), to the extent that ‘we don’t know any more who does what’, confessed an HR manager. Several HR managers highlighted in the interview that this structure creates all sorts of principal/agent tensions (Pratt and Zeckhauser 1985), as there might be a lack of alignment between the representatives, their hierarchy in the national trade-union, and their own constituents in the company. As a result, “higher” levels may disagree with negotiations carried out at “lower” levels. ‘Sometimes, even if the representatives agree with the policy of the company, they have to refuse the proposal because they must fit with the policy of their trade-union at the national level’, said an HR manager in the finance sector. The same example can be found in the housing sector: ‘Sometimes we reach agreements inside the company which are blocked at national level, by a group that doesn’t understand so in depth the company problems.

    In addition, HR managers consider that social dialogue is heavily constrained by strict regulations, whereas informal dialogue proves very useful (cf. infra). Informal dialogue seems to be easier in small rather than big companies: ‘Management trusts workers and vice versa. This is mainly due to the fact that it is a small company, where everybody has worked together for a long time and they feel part of the same family’ expressed an HR manager from the education sector. Related to that, in small companies, where informal dialogue is working, the structure of worker representation can be considered as less needed: ‘Simplifying the structure would be better. For example: if we are 49 we don’t need to have this structure but if we are 51 we need 10 members in the workers council!’ Labor laws are unanimously considered too complicated. The benefits of informal dialogue are also related to trust. An HR manager in the service sector pointed out: ‘Informal dialogue at individual level works very well and is effective, but at the negotiation table this trust disappears’.

  1. 4.

    Little influence of ERs, perceived as reactive rather than proactive. HR managers consider that under the present system, ERs do not have real influence on the decision-making system of companies. Some HR managers even consider that ERs would actually not be interested to have such an influence, because this involvement in joint decision-making would also mean accountability in the results of the company’s strategy. However, ERs retain a capacity to influence the modalities of the implementation of decisions, usually in order to delay the latter. They are oftentimes perceived as reactive (trying to oppose, putting a brake on procedures to gain time), rather than proactive (putting elaborated proposals on the table). ‘It is not natural for them to propose solutions, they wait for us to do something and then they react’, said an HR manager in the education sector. Also, another HR manager in the housing sector expressed: ‘There is a lack of initiatives by ERs proposing alternatives. The management makes proposals and hardly gets answers from ERs, and when we get answers are normally opposing the initiatives. This is not constructive at all. However, most HR managers interviewed consider it would make more sense to have a genuine involvement of ERs in the discussions shaping strategic decisions, as a way to prompt more proactivity and responsibility on their side.

  2. 5.

    Negative image and disconnection with employees. Most HR managers maintain that should employees perceive French trade-unions as effective and innovative representatives, trade-union density in France would not be the lowest in OECD with the exception of Turkey, as highlighted in Sect. 1. Whereas ERs retain some status in traditional industrial sectors (automotive), they suffer from low prestige in service sectors (e.g. banks, insurance). As a result, in whole areas of the French economy, few employees are interested to get responsibilities as ERs. Classic rhetoric of la lutte does not click so well with younger generations. An HR manager from the banking sector said: ‘we have a generation issue which is a problem for us, as the ERs are ageing and the bulk of them are over 50’. Trade-unions fail to attract younger employees, which deepens the gap with the very people they have to represent—e.g. in this French utility company (energy), due to the pace of retirements, 50 % of the workforce will be replace before 2020.

  3. 6.

    Life-long tenure and lack of turnover. A consequence of the previous feature, HR managers consider that French trade-unions and ERs suffer from a lack of turn-over: ‘one enters trade-unionism and then one never gets out of it, said an HR manager. Indeed, it seems customary to have life-long tenure as ERs. A senior HR manager in an insurance company, about to retire, noted that over a third of the ERs in his company were already in these positions when he started his career—30 years ago. Some ERs cumulate several responsibilities in order to be full-time on their trade-union responsibilities. The risk is to lose touch with the realities of the other workers’ jobs.

  4. 7.

    Lack of specific capacities. HR managers acknowledge that ERs know very well the legal regulations pertaining to social dialogue, due in part to the length of their tenure; they are also at ease with the media. However, they consider that most ERs lack (a) awareness of strategic challenges facing their company in a fast-moving competition; (b) technical knowledge and management competencies to contribute and take a proactive role in proposing action plans; and (c) innovative, more cooperative, approaches for negotiation and bargaining. ‘We have a real quality issue here’, said an HR manager in the banking sector. The fact that most of them have not for a long time been in classic work positions within the company (§ 6) does not help. And this very lack of expertise proves a handicap when ERs would like to exert an influence on decision, and therefore gain respect from employees. Indeed, it should be noted that most of these seven features reinforce each other, and build a coherent picture—or a vicious circle.

  5. 8.

    It takes two to tango. While pointing at the lack of pragmatism in some of their interlocutors, several HR managers acknowledge that the top management of their companies has a share of responsibility in the situation: ‘we get the ERs that we merit’. For instance, companies have not succeeded in providing proper career paths for ERs, as an incentive for higher turnover and shorter tenures. In companies where social dialogue has been taken seriously for a long time, with personal involvement of the CEO for instance, and once several episodes have reinforced mutual trust, ERs tend to escape from the above-mentioned features. Especially in times of crises, ‘it has been possible to move from a state of distrust to a state of mutual trust’, stated an HR manager in the banking sector.


5.3 Perceptions of Human Resources Managers on Employee Representatives. Results of the survey

In this section we present the descriptive results based on the data collected through an online survey among 40 French HR managers working in different sectors (i.e. financial, industrial, education). The data collected in France is compared to the score of 574 HR managers from the other 10 European countries participating in the study (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom). In Fig. 5.1 we present the variables’ mean in Europe and France. An independent sample t-test was run to determine the significant differences between France and the other countries participating in the study (significant differences are circled in the graph). As we discuss below, we appreciate main differences between both groups according to HR managers’ perception towards trust, relationship and ERs’ commitment to the organization.

Fig. 5.1

Mean scores of main variables for French and European HR managers

HR managers’ perception towards the industrial relations climate in terms of trust is lower in France (M = 2.91) compared to Europe (M = 3.31); and the antecedents of trust (abilities, benevolence and integrity) show the same result. In France, HR managers perceive that abilities, of ERs are low (M = 2.87) compared to the perception of HR managers in the other European countries (M = 3.14). Benevolence is also perceived as low (M = 2.94) compared to the other countries (M = 3.35). The third antecedent of trust that we measure is integrity and it is concluded that it is perceived also as lower (M = 2.98) than in the other countries (M = 3.47). The low perception of trust and its antecedents in French organizations drives us to explore the relationship between the parties (HR managers and ERs).

We observe that HR managers perceive more relationship conflicts in France (M =2.74) compared to Europe (M =2.29). Also task conflicts are perceived as higher in France (M =3.02) than in the European sample (M=2.81). According to the conflict style used to solve these conflicts, we see that a cooperative strategy of conflict management is less used in France (M =2.36) compared to Europe (M =2.76). A difference according to the competitive strategy of conflict management is not observed between France and Europe.

It is important to explore HR managers’ different perception towards ERs’ commitment to the organization. We see that HR managers in France perceive that French ERs are less committed to the organization (M = 2.78) compared to the European average (M = 3.16).

It should be noted that no statistical differences were found according to the perception towards ERs’ competences in France compared to the other European countries, although in the interviews this issue was pointed out. However, the diversity in competences and attitudes of ERs are shown to be high in France (M = 4.10) compared to the European sample (M = 3.38).

5.4 Suggestions Given by Employers to Improve Social Dialogue in France

The consensus amongst HR managers, according to both interviews and surveys, is that improvements are needed—and urgently. HR managers would like to help changes happen, when it comes to gaps in ERs representativeness and capacities, or the lack of cooperation and effectiveness in negotiation processes. This appears increasingly important, as the range of topics under discussion keeps growing. Indeed, in addition to traditional topics like wages and working shifts (representing 40 % and 25 % of negotiation topics in 2011; Jobert 2013), new topics have appeared, which are more open to social innovation and mutually satisfactory agreements: stress & working conditions (e.g. fight against moral harassment), diversity at the work place, gender equality (now compulsory every three years), “quality of life at the work place” (cf. for instance the agreement negotiated at Areva and signed on 31 May 2012). This expansion and diversification induce more sophisticated negotiations, calling for adequate capacities and training of ERs.

  1. 1.

    A priority is to put an end to the life-long tenure system. Neither the company, nor its employees, can afford to keep for decades the same ERs, who run the risk of losing touch with the actual jobs of the people they wish to represent, or with the reality of their business environment. Several HR managers suggest that no ER should be re-elected more than once—hence a maximum term of 10 years.

  2. 2.

    Improving career management for ERs. In order to reinforce the previous suggestion, HR managers suggest that companies should better help ERs “re-enter” the workforce following one or two term(s) as ER. Being an ER (for a period of time) should be better considered by the company as a valuable leadership and stewardship experience in a career, and valued as such. Such recognition would help attract new and younger employees towards ER responsibilities, for the benefit of the company and its employees alike. ‘We should be able to convey the message towards promising employees that running for election wont be a stain in their career, but rather an asset’ said an HR manager in the banking sector.

  3. 3.

    Raising the profile of trade-unionism in higher education. HR managers point at that the French higher education system has a share of responsibility in the negative image of trade-unions, which then does not help attract the most dynamic employees into ER responsibilities. They suggest that curricula should include more on the necessity, and the conditions, of social dialogue. This seems especially important in business schools and management universities.

  4. 4.

    Providing training programs to ERs. HR managers agree that more could be done to help ERs support innovation in social dialogue for mutual benefit. Three areas are identified. First, strategic vision, or “the big picture on why change is needed”: international competition, global financial flows and equilibriums, societal change, benchmarks. Second, customer relationship management, as HR managers perceive ERs to be too self-centered, or too focused on the internal structure of the company, whereas its survival depends mostly on its management of relationship with external partners—starting with the customer. Third topic of interest: cooperative bargaining, as negotiation processes and routines should be shifted towards less confrontational and more value-creating approaches. This could help prompt changes in terms of attitudes, and conflict management style: ‘The company should have given them training as soon as they got elected’ expressed an HR manager from the education sector. Another HR manager agrees and adds that the trade unions should also participate in the training programs. For at least one HR manager, some ERs may be reluctant to join training programs where they have to mix with other employees having a better understanding of on-going challenges.

  5. 5.

    Involving ERs more into decision-making mechanisms. Several HR managers consider that as ERs have no real grip on company’s strategy, it is understandable that they turn to conflictual rhetoric and “speaking to the gallery” instead of trying to put thorough proposals on the table. In order to involve them more in the decision making system, and therefore boost their sense of responsibility and accountability, HR managers very much doubt that the overall legal system of industrial relations in France is likely to be transformed on the short term. In this regard, however, they welcome a recent change brought in by the Accord national interprofessionel sur la sécurisation de lemploi (national negotiated agreement) signed on 11 January 2013. Clause #13 of this agreement introduces an innovation in terms of governance, inspired by Germany: employees must be represented at board level, for all firms having more than 5000 employees in France and/or 10,000 globally.

  6. 6.

    Investing in information sharing. In order to improve relationships with ERs and raise the level of mutual trust, most HR managers agree that a lot can be done informally at the level of the firm. In addition to the official/legal negotiation fora, more and more firms should create ad hoc groups gathering ERs and management (together with external experts if need be) in order to engage into informal discussions—the output of which can then be injected into the official pipeline. Such groups have emerged recently under various names: “groupe de pilotage,instance de dialogue stratégique,groupe paritaire de concertation” (Didry and Jobert 2008). These groups create a fruitful continuum between information, consultation, and negotiation, involving more than “the usual suspects”, and favorable to industrial relations generally speaking. Nevertheless, HR managers point out that improving the level of internal transparency requires that confidentiality towards external stakeholders is respected (Colson 2004): this risk is particularly sensitive in the banking industry.

  7. 7.

    Minimizing trade-unions divisions. Although they understand that different approaches or political inspirations may be legitimate, HR managers consider that having so many different and small organizations across the table does not help anyone: neither the management nor the employees. “We would have two or three big organizations, it would help build trust”, said an HR managers from the energy sector, and would diminish transaction costs. The 2008 law established a threshold of 8 % for official recognition, which might prompt rapprochements or mergers between the smaller players.


5.5 Discussion on Expectations of French Employers on Employee Representatives’ Roles, Attitudes, and Competences

From a negotiation theory viewpoint, one could argue that the French system of industrial relations is reaching a “mutually hurting stalemate”, as defined by William Zartman (1985): as the economic crisis and its social consequences deepen, and as global competition threatens whole business sectors of the French economy, neither employers nor employees can afford any longer to remain in this situation. The system is “ripe” for reform.

The question remains whether reforms will emerge from above—through new legislation—or from within—thanks to mutual adjustments between industrial relations partners and evolutions of attitudes at the level of companies. The French tradition (see Sect. 1) would point at the former. Recent moves hint at the latter. There are indeed a few reasons for hope. First, the latest figures available (Ministère du Travail) show a growing number of negotiated agreements at all levels: national (interprofessionnel), business sector (branche), and firm (34,000 agreements in 2011 vs. 28,000 in 2006 and 23,000 in 2002). Second, social partners now try and negotiate so-called “offensive” agreements: pro-active deals trying to anticipate on future challenges in a more innovative way. For instance, the French automotive industry is going through an acute crisis, and this helped secure “accords de compétitivité”, whereby ERs and employers agreed to certain changes in a proactive manner (Jobert 2013). However, with a few exceptions, HR managers do not have lot of knowledge on European Union policies pertaining to social dialogue. Last but not least, all employee trade-unions and employer organizations managed to strike a national deal on 11 January 2013, called Accord national interprofessionel sur la sécurisation de lemploi. Interestingly enough, the government agreed that the results of this major negotiation should be fully respected and confirmed by the Parliament, which passed a law to include into the legal system the points agreed through negotiation. Is the French state now taking seriously industrial relations and the labor movement?


  1. 1.

    In 2004, in Paris only, 1361 demonstrations took place on the streets, or an average of almost 4 every day ( Préfecture de Police).


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© The Author(s) 2015

Open Access This chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

Authors and Affiliations

  • Aurélien Colson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Patricia Elgoibar
    • 2
    • 1
  • Francesco Marchi
    • 1
  1. 1.ESSEC Business SchoolCergy-PontoiseFrance
  2. 2.IESEG School of ManagementParis La DefenseFrance

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