European Union - France

European court strikes down France’s ban on soldiers’ trade unions

Gendarmes police a union demonstration in Paris - they could be on the other side soon
Gendarmes police a union demonstration in Paris - they could be on the other side soon AFP

The European Court of Human Rights has ordered France to scrap a ban on soldiers joining a trade union, describing it as a breach of the right to freedom of association.


“A blanket ban on forming or joining a trade union encroaches on the very essence of this freedom,” the court ruled, while accepting that there could be “legitimate restrictions” on the right to strike or criticise military institutions in public.

The decision has implications for other European countries, such as the UK and Italy, who also forbid soldiers’ unions and for Portugal, where the right exists in theory but not in practice, according to Danish soldiers’ union leader, Flemming Vinther.

The court's ruling was a "great victory that is extremely favourable for soldiers", Michel Bavoil, the vice-president of the Association for the Defense of Soldiers' Rights (Adefdromil), told French television, while police trade union Unsa called on the authorities to engage in a “profound reform of the system of consultation in the military”.

The court overruled two decisions by France’s Council of State ordering military personnel to resign from organisations set up to represent military personnel.

The first concerned a gendarme, since the French gendarmerie, although a form of police force, is part of the military.

Jean-Hugues Matelly, who set up a group called Gendarmes and Citizens in 2008, was ordered to resign from it, as were all other working gendarmes involved on the grounds that it was a “trade-union-like occupational group”.

The Council of State rejected his appeal against the order in 2010.

The European court ordered France to pay Matelly 1,400 euros in compensation.

The second reversed the ban on Adefdromil, which was founded in 2001 by two soldiers.

In a statement the Defence Ministry said it would study what changes to French law will need to be made, while respecting the “fundamental values of military status”.

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