Five things you need to know about trade unions in France

France's trade unions are notorious for bringing the country to a standstill, but the country has one of the lowest rate of unionised employees in Europe and the numbers are falling. Here's what you need to know about "les syndicats", including why many workers in France won't join them.

Five things you need to know about trade unions in France
Unions in France. But why are their numbers dwindling?

A survey published by France’s human rights defender, an independent administrative authority, revealed that a “fear of reprisal” was cited as the most common reason for employees’ low-engagement in trade unions. 

A large majority of those surveyed said their trade union activities had a negative impact for their professional growth and said they felt discriminated against by their employers.

The survey highlighted the main causes for the decrease of trade union membership in France since the 1950's, which is now one of the lowest rates of unionised employees in the European Union. But for most of the 19th century, trade unions achieved some major accomplishments for workers’ rights. 

Here are five things you should know about trade unions in France. 

Philippe Martinez, the outspoken head of the CGT union. AFP

What is a trade union and why is its purpose? 

A trade union’s main objective is to defend the common professional interests of a group of people who share the same or similar professions.

Trade unions were made legal in France by the 1884 Waldeck-Rousseau law, which was reaffirmed by the current Constitution.

Which are the main trade unions in France?

In order to negotiate and sign agreements on behalf of employees, a trade union must be granted the legitimacy to represent its members. 

There are seven criteria a union must meet to be fully representative of its members:

  • Respect Republican values

  • Be independent 

  • Be financially transparent 

  • Have a minimum of two years’ seniority

  • Have influence 

  • Have members who pay their dues

  • Have a check and balances system set up with employees

This last point is the most important and is measured every four years during professional elections

There are employer and employee trade unions in France. 

Four unions are accredited at the national level to negotiate and conclude agreements in all sectors for employees. 

The Force Ouvriere union at a protest in Paris. Photo: AFP

  • The General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail CGT)
  • The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail CFDT)
  • The French Confederation of Christian Workers (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens CFTC) 
  • Workers' Force (Force ouvrière FO)

The French Confederation of Management (Confédération générale des cadres CGC) is the only union accredited at the national level to negotiate on behalf of managerial staff. 

All of these are headed by a secretary general, and have trade union officers and delegates. 

Employers in France are usually represented by the Movement of the Enterprises of France (MEDEF), which is the biggest of its kind. 

Some professional groups also have their own trade union, such as doctors who are represented by the confederation of French medical unions (CSMF) or journalists who can become members of the national union of journalists (SNJ). 

Students also have their own union called the national unions of students of France (Unef).  

Members of the CGT union during a recent Paris transport strike. AFP


Why are unions important? 

Trade unions are the main entities fighting to improve (or at least hold on to) work conditions, salaries, and social protection for their members.

The government must consult the unions when carrying out social reforms. As per a 2007 law, any amendments to the work code must be consulted with trade unions before being made. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had to negotiate with unions before passing the contentions 2017 labour reforms

How are trade unions funded?

Trade unions are mainly financed by membership fees as well as by certain taxes such as the employers’ contribution to the financing of trade union organisations. French law requires the full disclosure of trade unions’ accounts. 

Is it important to be a union member? 

There is no right answer to that as the choice is mainly a personal one. 

France has one of the weakest rates of unionised employees in Europe as the percentage of union members has been on a downward spiral since the post-war years. 

The latest data published by the Work Ministry showed that only 11% of employees in public and private sectors were union members in 2016, with men being more prone to join a union than women.  

Public sector employees tend to be more unionised than those in the private sector, with 19,1% in the public sector belonging to a union compared to 8,4% of their private counterparts. 

However, most unions still play an important role in negotiations within a company. In particular, professional unions will still be consulted by the government on their respective sectors. 

Professional trade unions are also the main actors fighting to provide better work conditions to their respective sector. 


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Angry French workers booby-trap factory, trash machines and threaten to blow the place up

French workers are renowned for their extreme protests and a group of employees whose jobs are threatened at a factory in central France have proved it once again by destroying equipment and threatening to blow up the plant.

Angry French workers booby-trap factory, trash machines and threaten to blow the place up
Workers destroy equipment at the factory. Photo: AFP

The workers at GM&S auto-suppliers plant in the Creuse department of central France have sent a message to bosses and car giants Renault and Peugeot by threatening to blow up their factory.

Around 280 jobs are on the line at the plant, north of Limoges, that went into receivership in December.

According to trade union representatives the employees have started destroying their factory equipment and say they will trash a machine each day until their demands are met.

But more worrying is that they say they have booby-trapped the site with gas canisters and cans of petrol.

Images posted on Twitter showed gas canisters strung up to a huge tank of “liquid oxygen”. The words “we are going to blow everything up” (on va tout péter) were scrawled on the site of a giant liquid air tank.

Twitter images also showed workers cutting a machine in half with a blow torch.

Workers are particularly angry at Renault and Peugeot whom they accuse of blocking negotiations for a takeover of the site and of giving too few orders.

“We refuse to be taken for a ride anymore,” union rep Vincent Labrousse told AFP.  

“We have been fighting for six months and we are sorry to get to this point but at the moment there is a threat of liquidation and if that happens then the factory will not be returned in one piece,” he said.

Workers want new French president Emmanuel Macron to intervene and take up the case.

The radical action will not surprise those who have followed workers protests in France through the years.

In September 2015 striking French ferry workers trashed their vessels before they were sold on to Eurotunnel.

Every single seat was slashed with a box knife. The ships were stripped of fridges, televisions and equipment.

The link below shows the kind of measures workers in France are prepared to take when their jobs are threatened.

IN PICTURES: 15 crazy French protests you'll find hard to believe