French labour negotiations overshadowed by Air France scuffle

Jean-Claude Mailly of the FO union (centre) listens to Hollande's opening speech at the social conference
Jean-Claude Mailly of the FO union (centre) listens to Hollande's opening speech at the social conference AFP/Thomas Samson

France’s biggest trade union is boycotting an annual social conference. Layoffs at Air France and violence that erupted after negotiations last week are the backdrop for the two-day meeting, convened by the French government with trade unions and employer representatives to set labour relations for the next year.


On the agenda for this year’s conference – the fifth ever, and the fourth called by the Socialist government – is the green economy, the digital economy and the concept of an employee rights account.

The account would gather an employee’s training, unemployment and other rights, and attach them to individuals instead of having them linked to their employers.

“Basically it’s what’s called ‘flexicurity’ in Europe,” Donna Kesselman, who studies comparative trade unionism at the University of Paris Est Creteil, told RFI.

The idea is to give employers the flexibility to lay off employees more easily, but employees keep their rights.

“It’s going form a system of collective rights to individual rights,” says Kesselman, adding that it has worked in Denmark, but could be problematic in a country like France, where there is a tradition of balancing the power relationship between employers and employees is strong.

The employee rights account is certain to be a strong point of disagreement between unions, which raises questions about why the CGT union is not present.

All the left-wing unions boycotted last year’s conference, as a protest against the government’s austerity policies. The CGT had agreed to attend this year, until last week, with the upheaval at Air France.

The Force Ouvriere union is attending, though, as a voice of dissent.

“If the FO union wasn’t attending, there would be no critical voice in this conference,” said Secretary General Jean-Claude Mailly, making a reference to a government proposal to change the labour code, to add more flexibility in the collective bargaining with unions.

Curiously, that is not on the agenda of this social conference.

The state of French unions

The incident at Air France drew attention to growing social and economic tensions in France. Introducing the social conference, President Francois Hollande said he believes in the need for strong trade unions.

“I will not accept that the inexcusable violence committed at Air France becomes the opportunity to hold it against unionism as a whole,” he said. “I believe in the role of representative bodies. I believe in the need for responsible actors who are engaged.”

French unions play a big role in negotiating workers’ rights, particularly collective rights. The vast majority of French employees are covered by industrial sector collective bargaining agreements.

“Trade union involvement in these sector-wide collective bargaining negotiations is essential,” says Kesselman. “And it explains the paradox of the enormous presence of union, and the fact that a very small percentage of workers in France are officially unionized.”

Indeed, only 8 per cent of French employees are unionised, but the benefits apply to everyone, regardless of union membership.

Sylvie Contrepois, a trade union specialist at London Metropolitan University and the CNRS, the French national research centre, says trade unions remain crucial to French employees and employers:

“Employers know they have an interest to have a social regulation through trade unions,” she explains to RFI. Without unions, frustrated employees take things into their own hands, and “you can end in violence.”

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