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Trade Unions

In membership terms the French trade union movement is one of the weakest in Europe with only 11% of employees in unions. It is divided into a number of rival confederations, competing for membership. (The main confederations are the CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC and CFE-CGC.) But despite low membership and apparent division, French trade unions have strong support in elections for employee representatives and have been able to mobilise French workers to great effect.

Estimates from Dares, the research and statistical section of the French Ministry of Labour indicate that in 2016 10.8% of French employees were union members. With almost 25 million employees in France, including both the public and private sectors, this means that there were some 2.7 million trade unionists in employment at that time.[1] In addition, the unions have a number of unemployed and retired members, who in 2004 made up a fifth of total trade union membership, according to another Dares study.[2]


Historically, since the late 1940s, there have been five main union confederations with membership across the whole of the economy. They are the CGT, CFDT, CGT-FO (better known as FO), the CFTC and the CFE-CGC.  The political positions of the five confederations are set out in more detail below, but in broad terms the CGT can be seen as generally more militant; the CFDT is more moderate; FO contains a number of political currents; and the CFTC is the Christian confederation; while the CFE-CGC primarily represents professional and managerial employees.


For many years, these five were all considered "representative" at national level, without being required to demonstrate a specific level of support. This nationally “representative” status automatically gave them rights to negotiate and to nominate candidates for elections (for the CFE-CGC this only applied in respect of professional and managerial staff). There were also other union groupings, such as the FSU, UNSA and Solidaires. They had significant influence, but they did not have the legal status of the five “representative” confederations, although in specific cases they were able ask a court to accord them “representative” status.


However, this situation, which after 1966 remained unaltered for more than 40 years, changed in 2008, when new criteria for determining whether a union is representative in the private sector at national, industry and company level, were introduced. For the first time, these included the requirement to have at least a set level of support from employees in elections for representational structures at the workplace (for details see section on workplace representation). Additionally, in companies with 10 employees or fewer, where these structures do not exist, workers have been able to vote for the unions they favour in regional elections every four years, and there have been separate elections for the small number of employees in agriculture.


The 2008 law requires a union to win at least 10% of the votes at company level to be considered representative at company level, 8% of the votes at industry level to be considered representative at industry level, and 8% of the votes at national level to be considered representative at national level. However, the votes to be used as the basis of these calculations are the votes in the first round of the elections, when only unions can nominate candidates. Only if less than half those eligible fail to vote for the union-nominated candidates is there a second round in which non-union candidates can also stand.


The results of the first test of the representativeness of unions under these rules were announced in March 2013, and all five of the existing nationally representative union confederations cleared the 8% hurdle. The CGT came top of the poll, followed by the CFDT, FO, the CFE-CGC and  the CFTC in that order. The smaller confederations failed to get the necessary 8% at national level, although some did achieve it in a number of industries.


In 2017, the second round of results was announced, and again all five traditionally representative confederations gained more than 8% of the national votes and so maintained their national representative status. However, there was an important change in the order, with the CGT losing its top position to the CFDT. The figures published in April 2017 show that the CFDT had the support of 26.4% of employees voting, compared with 24.8% for the CGT, 15.6% for FO, 10.7% for CFE-CGC and 9.5% for the CFTC. The smaller confederations again failed to get the necessary 8% support to become nationally representative, with UNSA gaining 5.4% of the votes and Solidaires 3.5%. Other union groupings got a total of 4.0%. The overall turnout in the elections, which cover company level elections from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2016, was 42.8%.


There is considerable rivalry between the main confederations, though the reasons for the differences are not always clear. There can also be a gap between the political positions put forward by the leadership and those supported by the membership.


Among the three largest confederations, the CFDT has generally taken the most moderate positions on government and employer initiatives in the recent past. On its website it describes itself as “a pragmatic trade union, which prefers to find solutions through dialogue but does not hesitate to mobilise against measures which are unjust”.[3] An example of this approach is provided by the CFDT’s response to the major changes in employment law introduced under President Macron in 2017. It was critical of many aspects of the proposals but it did not take part in the demonstrations against them organised by other confederations, particularly the CGT and FO. The CFDT’s general secretary, Laurent Berger, stated: “Exerting pressure on the forthcoming decrees and acting in companies is less spectacular than the demonstrations but so much more effective".[4]


The CGT, in contrast was one of the prime movers of the demonstrations against the Macron changes, and it has generally taken the most militant positions on political and industrial issues of the three large confederations. However, it does not oppose everything put forward by employers or the government, and in the policy document presented to its congress in 2016 it stated that it represented a trade unionism which “challenges, proposes, acts and negotiates”.[5]  For many years, the CGT has not been as close to its traditional political ally, the Communist Party as it once was. A policy document passed at its congress in 2003 made it clear that the CGT needed to work with a range of political parties and could no longer “support or jointly develop a political project, whatever it might be”.


The FO, which was also involved in organising the demonstrations against the Macron changes, includes a wide range of opinions within its membership, including more moderate reformists and Trotskyist and anarchist groupings. Traditionally it has taken an anti-communist line since its foundation, when it broke from the CGT in 1948, but in recent years it has worked with the CGT in organising protests against government policies. The election of a new FO general secretary in November 2018 indicated the differing strength of the varying political currents, with Yves Veyrier, described as a “reformist militant”, narrowing winning against his closest rival by 2,720 votes to 2,577.[6]


The CFTC describes itself in its statutes as being inspired by Christian social morality. A policy document, adopted at its congress in 2015, stated that the CFCT continued to see “social dialogue, at company, industry and national level, as a priority and the best means of promoting the interests of the world of work and advancing social progress”.[7]


The CFE-CGC sees its specific role as representing the interests of higher grade employees, such as senior technicians and middle-management. It aims to reconcile the interests of companies and their employees, and it states on its website that the aim of its actions “is not radically to change things but rather to make them evolve realistically”.[8]


An indication of the approaches of the five nationally representative confederations is provided by the extent to which they are willing to sign collective agreements, both at national and at industry level. In 2017, the CFDT and its affiliated unions signed almost nine out of 10 of the agreements reached (86.6%), while the CGT and its affiliates signed only a third (33.2%). The other three confederations signed fewer than the CFDT but many more than the CGT. The FO and its affiliates signed 71.4%, the CFTC 74.2% and the CFE-CGC 68.7%.[9] This pattern has remained broadly unchanged over the 10 years up to 2017, with only the CFDT showing a marked upward trend, from 81.9% in the years 2007 to 2016 to 86.6% in 2017.  


The organisations currently without “representative” status at national level have varying areas of strength. UNSA, the national union of autonomous unions, is probably the largest. It is primarily made up of unions in the public sector, including parts of the once united teachers union (FEN), but it also has affiliates in the private sector. It states on its website that it wishes to develop a “strong and unified trade union movement, in France and in Europe”.[10] Solidaires includes some autonomous unions in the public sector and some left wing activists who broke away from the CFDT to form a new group SUD, which is strongest in the railways, telecommunications and the post office. A third significant grouping is FSU, which is built around other sections of the former teachers’ union, but also has other public sector unions in membership.


It is important to remember that these smaller confederations are significantly stronger in the public than in the private sector. In the results of the elections for workplace representatives conducted in November 2018, UNSA won 11.2% of the votes, Solidaires 6.4% and the FSU 8.6%. The CGT won these elections with 21.8% while the CFDT got 19.0% and FO 18.1%. However, the two other nationally representative unions in the private sector gained many fewer votes: CFE-CGC got 3.4% and CFTC 2.9%.[11]    


The new rules on representation could, in principle, encourage union mergers, as unions need to have a certain level of support to maintain their status. However, the fact that all five of the traditionally representative confederations cleared the 8% hurdle in both 2013 and 2017 and continue to be nationally representative has removed any immediate pressure to merge in order to protect their status.


In contrast to the levels of  support that the union confederations have in the elections of employee representatives, which are published by the government, figures on union membership are less publicly available.


In May 2018 Laurent Berger, the CFDT’s general secretary told a news agency that the CFDT had 623,802 members in 2017[12] and this is now the figure on the union’s website. This is well below the 868,601 members previously stated, but Berger explained that the lower numbers were the result of using a more accurate basis for the calculation, not a loss of membership. Around 6% of the confederation’s membership consists of retired members.

The CGT’s membership is slightly higher, reported to have been 664,350 in 2016.[13] This figure is broadly in line with the annual figures presented to the CGT congress in 2016, which showed membership at 676,623 in 2014. Of these 109,522 were retired, 16% of the total.[14]


FO does not publish figures, but estimated it had 500,000 members in 2011. Other estimates are lower, at around 300,000. In 2014, the CFTC stated on its website in that it had 135,000 members, but membership figures are no longer published.[15] The CFE-CGC’s website states that it had 170,000 members in 2016.[16]


Among the non-nationally representative confederations, UNSA states it has 200,000 members, Solidaires 110,000 and FSU 150,000.[17] These membership numbers, which are relatively high in relation to the support these confederations receive in the elections in the private sector, reflect their greater strength in the public sector.


All the main confederations are organised on similar lines with a parallel structure of industry federations and geographical groupings, both based on local union groupings, which have considerable administrative autonomy. Although there may be tensions between the different elements, power is concentrated at the level of the confederation.


The decline in overall trade union membership, which was continuous from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, appears to have been stemmed, with the proportion of employees in unions stable at around 11% over 20 years between 1996 and 2016.[18] (This figure is higher than the previously widely used estimate of 8%. In a publication in 2016, Dares, the research body of the ministry of labour, concluded that previous survey methods had led to an underestimation of union density, which had remained consistent at around 11% over the period 19196 to 2006.)[19]


Despite their weakness in terms of membership, French trade unions have, in the past, been able to mobilise their members for mass action, and, on occasion, change government policy. The government was forced to withdraw its plans for a new employment contract for young workers in 2006, while in 2010 there were massive demonstrations between September and October protesting at the government’s pension plans. The six demonstrations, which were organised jointly by six union confederations, brought large numbers onto the streets – up to 3.5 million people in the biggest day of protest, according to figures from the CFDT, and up to 1.3 million, according to the police. More recent demonstrations against changes to employment law introduced by President Macron in 2017 mobilised many fewer workers, in part because not all unions have supported them.


The 2016 Dares figures show that French trade unionism is much stronger in public services, where around 18.7% of employees are in unions, than in the private and voluntary sectors, where the figure is only 8.4%.[20]


Men are more likely to be union members than women: 11.8% of male employees are union members, compared with 9.8% of female employees.[21]

[1] Syndicalisation, Dares, 8 October 2018, https://dares.travail-emploi.gouv.fr/dares-etudes-et-statistiques/statistiques-de-a-a-z/article/syndicalisation (Accessed 24.12.2018)

[2] Mythes et réalités de la syndicalisation en France, by  Thomas Amossé DARES October 2004 http://travail-emploi.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/publication_pips_200410_n-44-2_mythes-et-realites-de-la-syndicalisation-en-france.pdf

[3] La CFDT en 10 points  https://www.cfdt.fr/portail/nous-connaitre/la-cfdt-en-10-points/la-cfdt-en-10-points-rec_66780 (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[4] Interview FranceInfo 12 September 2017,  https://www.cfdt.fr/portail/presse/la-cfdt-dans-les-medias/-interview-peser-est-moins-spectaculaire-que-les-manifs-mais-plus-efficace-srv2_512332 (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[5] CGT 51e congrès / document d’orientation, Le Peuple / Hors-Série N° 1 / January 2016

[6] Yves Veyrier, nouveau secrétaire général de Force ouvrière, Le Monde 22 November 2018 https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2018/11/22/yves-veyrier-elu-secretaire-general-de-force-ouvriere_5386973_823448.html (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[7]Motion d’orientation de la CFTC issue du 52e congrès confédéral de novembre 2015  https://www.cftc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/CFTC-MOTION-ORIENTATION-NOVEMBRE.pdf (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[8] Syndicalisme d'avenir http://www.cfecgc.org/CFE-CGC/nos-engagements/syndicalisme-d-avenir/ (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[9] La négociation collective en 2017, Ministère du Travail, 2018

[10] https://www.unsa.org/-Nous-connaitre-.html (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[11] Résultats des élections professionnelles pour les comités techniques dans la fonction publique en 2018 : Résultats définitifs, Ministère de l'action et des comptes publics, December 2018, https://www.fonction-publique.gouv.fr/files/files/statistiques/stats-rapides/resultats_electionsFP_20_dec_2018.pdf (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[12]http://social.blog.lemonde.fr/2018/05/16/la-cfdt-revoit-a-la-baisse-son-nombre-dadherents/ (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[13] La CGT a perdu 30.000 adhérents en quatre ans by Leïla de Comarmon, Les Echos 15.05.18 https://www.lesechos.fr/15/05/2018/lesechos.fr/0301679520603_la-cgt-a-perdu-30-000-adherents-en-quatre-ans.htm (Accessed 08.01.2019   

[14] CGT 51e congrès / rapport d’activité, Le Peuple / Hors-Série N° 1 / January 2016

[15] http://www.cftc.fr/ewb_pages/c/cftc.php (accessed 25.07.2014)

[16] http://www.cfecgc.org/CFE-CGC/histoire-de-la-CFE-CGC/la-CFE-CGC-aujourdhui/ (accessed 08.01.2019)

[17] UNSA: ETUC Annual Gender Equality Survey 2018 – 11th edition, by Lionel Fulton and Cinzia Sechi, ETUC, 2018; Solidaires: L’Union syndicale Solidaires : une expérimentation sociale? June 2017,  http://www.lesutopiques.org/lunion-syndicale-solidaires-experimentation-sociale/ FSU: https://www.snes.edu/Le-SNES-membre-de-la-FSU.html (Accessed 08.01.2019)

[18] Syndicalisation, Dares, 8 October 2018, https://dares.travail-emploi.gouv.fr/dares-etudes-et-statistiques/statistiques-de-a-a-z/article/syndicalisation (Accessed 24.12.2018)

[19] La syndicalisation en France: Des salariés deux fois plus syndiqués dans la fonction publique by Maria Teresa Pignoni https://dares.travail-emploi.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/2016-025.pdf (Accessed 24.12.2018)

[20] Syndicalisation, Dares, 8 October 2018, https://dares.travail-emploi.gouv.fr/dares-etudes-et-statistiques/statistiques-de-a-a-z/article/syndicalisation (Accessed 24.12.2018)

[21] Ibid

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.