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Trade Unions

In membership terms the French trade union movement is one of the weakest in Europe with only 8% 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 are able to mobilise French workers to great effect.

Official figures from the national household survey show that there are some 1.8 million trade unionists in employment in France. This means that 8.1% of all employees in France are in unions – the figures are an average for the period 2001 to 2005. 1 In addition the unions have a number of unemployed and retired members, adding another 400,000 to this total.2 The ICTWSS database of union membership estimated union density at 7.9% in 2010.3

Historically, 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 which 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 or 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 has now changed. Legislation passed in August 2008 introduced new criteria for determining whether a union is representative at national, industry and company level. For the first time, these include the requirement to have at least a set level of support from employees in workplace elections – either as indicated by the votes for the members of the works council or, in smaller companies for the employee delegates (see section on workplace representation). Additionally, in companies with 10 employees or fewer, where these structures do not exist, workers are able to vote for the unions they favour in regional elections every four years, and there are separate elections for the small number of employees in agriculture.

The new 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 on 29 March 2013, and all five of the existing nationally representative union confederations cleared the 8% hurdle. The CGT came top of the poll with 26.77% of the votes, followed by the CFDT with 26.00%. FO was in third place with 15.94% and the CFE-CGC got 9.43%. The CFTC was in fifth place with 9.30%, but this was still sufficient to be declared nationally representative.

The newer confederations, UNSA, with 4.26% and Solidaires with 3.47% failed to get the necessary 8% at national level, although they did achieve it in a number of industries, giving them rights to participate in negotiations at this level where they did so.

Until 2017, when the next round of results are announced, confederations that are nationally representative are automatically deemed representative at industry level irrespective of their level of support within the industry concerned. However, from 2017 onwards they will have to gain 8% of the votes within an industry to be considered representative in negotiations within it. (The 2013 results show that some unions did not pass this threshold in some industries.)

At company level, elections have been held under the new rules since 2009, and as a result some of the nationally representative unions have lost their rights. For example, the works council elections at the French railway company SNCF in 2009 and again in 2013, resulted in the FO, CFE-CGC and CFTC losing their rights as representative unions at company level, as they gained fewer than 10% of the votes.



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 CGT has generally taken the most militant positions on political and industrial issues, although it does not oppose everything. The policy document approved at its congress in 2006 stated that trade unions need “to act and to demand, to propose and to negotiate, to resist and to construct”. The CGT is also no longer 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 CFDT, while working with the CGT and other unions on some issues, has in the past shown that it is more willing to make compromises with the government. This was most obvious over the protests on pensions in 2003 when the CFDT signed an agreement with the government, which the other main union confederations, except the CFE-CGC, condemned. The confederation defended this position with its then general secretary Francois Chérèque arguing that the CFDT is at the centre of a reformist group of unions which “fights to get results”. The CFDT was fully involved with other unions in the national campaign of protest which forced the government to give way on its plans for a new employment contract for young workers in 2006.



The FO includes a wide range of opinions including the socialist party, Trotskyist groupings and Gaullists, although it has consistently taken a vigorous anti-communist line since its foundation, when it broke from the CGT in 1949. In the past the FO was seen as the most moderate of the three main confederations. But in recent years, facing pressure from some FO members and increased competition from the CFDT, it has taken a more militant stand.

The CFTC describes itself as inspired by Christian social teaching and at its congress in 2005 adopted a resolution which identified one of its key objectives as being to ally “economic performance and social justice”.

The CFE-CGC sees its specific role as representing the interests of higher grade employees, such as senior technicians and middle-management.

A recent indication of the positions of the five existing nationally representative unions was provided by their attitude towards the national collective agreement on employment security, which was signed in January 2013 after three months of negotiation, initiated at the request of the socialist government. The agreement has subsequently been implemented through legislation. Three confederations, the CFDT, the CFTC and the CFE-CGC, signed the agreement, with the CFDT saying that it “responds to the problems of employment at a difficult time and gives new rights to employees”. The CGT and FO both refused to sign and, despite their past disagreements, organised a joint protest against the deal, which they stated went too far in “cutting individual and collective rights for the benefit of employers”. However, the CGT and FO were unable to prevent adoption of the agreement, as together they represented only 49.8% of the workforce, less than the 50% plus one required (see Collective bargaining section).



The pattern of the CFDT, CFTC and CFE-CGC signing national agreements, which have been opposed by the CGT and FO, has continued into 2014. However, this has not always been the case. On one occasion the FO joined the other three in support, and on another the CFE-CGC was in opposition.


The organisations currently without “representative” status have a varying history. 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. UNSA, the national union of autonomous unions, largely made up of unions in the public sector, but with some in the private sector, includes parts of the once united teachers union. FSU is built around another part of the former teachers’ union, but also has other public sector unions in membership.

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. There were discussions at national level on a merger between the CFE-CGC and UNSA in 2008 and early 2009, but they failed to reach agreement. However, the fact that all five of the traditionally representative confederations cleared the 8% hurdle and continue to be nationally representative has removed any immediate pressure to merge in order to protect their status.

There are two methods for measuring the relative support for the separate union confederations – their membership and the votes they get in the various elections for employee representatives.

Using the unions’ own figures on membership, the CFDT is in the lead. It states on its website dated November 2012 that it has 868,601 members4 , although newspaper articles at the time of its congress in June 2014 put the figure for 2013 at 865,000.5 The CGT announced in the financial report presented to its congress in March 2013 that it had 682,695 paying members in 2011, divided between 571,272 active members and 111,423 retired members6 . Later newspaper reports, quoting figures presented to a meeting of the CGT’s main national committee, stated that the CGT had 694,857 members at the end of 2012.7 FO does not publish figures, but estimated it had 500,000 members in 2011. Other estimates are lower, at around 300,000. The CFTC states on its website that it has 135,000 members8 , while the CFE-CGC’s website states that it had 143,240 members at the end of 2012.9

An academic study published in 2007, suggested that the figures were generally lower and that the CGT, with 540,000 members, had more than the CFDT, with 450,000 members.10 However, the CFDT has rejected these figures as incorrect.

In terms of support in the elections, the main test has been the five-yearly election of employee members of the employment tribunals, although this only covers the private sector. Here, in the latest elections in 2008, the CGT was in the lead with 34.0% of the vote, followed by the CFDT with 21.8%, FO with 15.8%, CFTC with 8.7%, the CFE-CGC with 8.2%, UNSA with 6.3% and Solidaires with 3.8%. However, the government has decided to end the separate elections to employment tribunals in 2015 and instead rely on the criteria used to judge the representativeness of unions for the purpose of collective bargaining.

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. 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 8% over the ten years from 1996 to 2005. 11 In addition, individual confederations report membership increases. The CGT reported to its 2013 congress that its membership rose from 654,000 in 2007 to 683,000 in 2011 (up by 4.4%)12 , while the CFDT has said that its membership grew from 833,000 in 2009 to 864,000 in 2011 (a 3.7% increase).13


French trade unionism is much stronger in the public sector, where around 15% of employees are in unions (15.2% among those employed directly by the state and 14.7% in state-owned companies and social security provision), than in the private sector, where the figure is only 5.0%.14

Despite their weakness in terms of membership, French trade unions have 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 government policy have mobilised many fewer workers, in part because not all unions have supported them.

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.