Today I gave a seminar presentation on the History of French Labour and below is the 15 slide presentation I prepared on Powerpoint for the seminar.


History of French Labour – Seminar 29.11.17


The history, present and future of the French labour movement: continued division, contestation and weakness?



  • 1789 Revolution creates a strong Jacobin State, characteristic of the French government until the present day. (An archetypical dirigiste state)
  • Original Revolution plus three subsequent 19th century revolutions (July Monarchy, Second Empire, Third Republic) all tend to use the working class / masses to ignite the fire of revolution but ultimately all favour bourgeois ideals.


  • France is relatively late in comparison with its European neighbours to undergo the industrial revolution.
  • When it does industrialize, it maintains a large peasant element in rural areas and the emerging working class are concentrated in certain northern regions and in the big cities

The Nature of the French People

  • Due to the Jacobin structure of government, intermediary bodies between the state and the people are not encouraged.
  • Also, the French people have a genuine disinterest in ‘signing-up’ to large groups / organizations although they do have Nationalistic tendencies when it comes to State interests.
  • This leads to the small membership numbers of Trade Unions.

Trade Unions

  • 1791 Le Chapelier Law – Outlaws Trade Unions
  • Trade Unions eventually legalized in 1884
  • Right to strike recognized in 1864, before Unions were legal.
    Working class solidarity not encouraged at all and there has always been conflict in any attempts for the Labour movement to organize itself.

Trade Unions

  • Union membership always been traditionally low, rising to a peak of about a third of employees following 1968 Strikes.
  • Today’s membership figures are only around 7% of workforce.
  • Union membership, however not essential to the way they work in France and their core members are good at propelling the workforce into strike action.
  • Lowest Union density in Western World
  • Collective Bargaining coverage, however, is very high at 95%, much higher than international economic competitors.

Trade Unions

  • CGT Confédération Générale du Travail
  • CFTC Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens
  • CFDT Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail
  • CFE-CGC Confédération Française de l’Encadrement – Confédération Générale des Cadres
  • FOForce Ouvrière
  • Others

SUDSolitaires Unitaires Démocratiques

CNT – Confédération Nationale du Travail

FSU – Fédération Syndicale Unitaire



  • There is a Paternalistic approach to employees
  • Many of the top French companies are still, to this day family businesses.
  • Always been resistant to Unionization which is one of the reasons why State intervention in employment disputes is so characteristic of French Labour movement
  • CNPF created 1946 – Conseil National du Patronat Français – became MEDEF in 1998 Mouvement des Enterprises de France

20th Century Economic Policies

  • Early twentieth century sees the decline of Syndicalism as a force in Labour movement.
  • Laissez-Faire capitalism which preceded WW2 seen to have failed France
  • Post-WW2 Nationalizations of major industries – Labour movement experiences high capital due to its resistance during war
  • 1958 Gaullist Dirigisme – Technocratic Elite – bureaucracy from the Grandes-Écoles
  • Keynesian Economic Policies
  • Taylorist-Fayolist Work Practices (Fayolism = Top-down Management Practices)
  • 1950 Collective Bargaining Act – introduces further division among Trade Unions as a single representative Union can sign agreements.
  • Fordist Compromise
  • May 1968 Strikes – Grenelle Accords – Trade Union Strength – Autogestion
  • 1970s Oil Crisis brings a shift to Neo-Liberalism
  • Failure of Soviet system leading to collapse of French Communist Party – PCF
  • Globalisation – shareholders sharing profits, external markets, shattered Fordism and Keynesian economic model – Reduction in State influence and Power
  • Micro-corporatism
  • French Governments in a big drive to reduce unemployment figures but all failing.


  • From 1970s Oil Crisis onwards, Rising unemployment up to around 10%, Trade Unions fade in terms of membership and influence
  • 1981 Mitterand – Left-wing government
  • External Constraint
  • Deflationary policies
  • Franc pinned to Deutschemark
  • Eurozone Entry meant Maastricht Conditions had to be adhered to
  • From 1970s Oil Crisis onwards, Rising unemployment up to around 10%, Trade Unions fade in terms of membership and influence
  • 1981 Mitterand – Left-wing government
  • External Constraint
  • Deflationary policies
  • Franc pinned to Deutschemark
  • Eurozone Entry meant Maastricht Conditions had to be adhered to

Auroux Laws

  • 1982 Auroux Laws introduced during Mitterand socialist coalition government
  • Aimed to bring reinvigorate Trade Unions, strengthening their role and to reconcile the competing concerns of unions and employers
  • Introduction of Self-Expression Groups
  • Decentralization of Collective Bargaining
  • Works Committees leading to micro-corporatism
  • Auroux laws ultimately benefitted Employers who initially were not keen as unprepared Trade Unions were shifted away from their base. – Professional Union representatives and Employees given a direct path to consult employer.
  • Quality Circles a good example of how Workers were taken advantage of


  • French have the constitutional ‘right to strike’
  • Tend to be very reactive and mobilize relatively easily, one of the reasons for Union membership to survive at such low figures
  • May 1968 Height of Striking in Western World, not just France – Unions at their peak
  • 1970s onwards fading away
    Modern day strikes tend to focus on public sector. High Unemployment and micro-corporatism have eroded strike capacity of private firms employees
  • 1995 saw a strike wave across France with mass mobilization
  • Coordination movements 1980s – 1990s
  • Corporatiste strikes – sectional interests
  • ‘days of action’ solidarity strikes becoming more common
  • Today, even with Macron’s decimating reforms that would have roused the strikers in their millions only 20-30 years ago, French unwilling to gather en masse. Have the French lost their propensity to strike?

Trade Union Division

  • Under anarcho-syndicalism, Trade Unions were supposed to withhold from political allegiances
  • CGT very close to PCE, French Communist Party. The fading of communist forces has meant they have had to realign their political strategy in a unipolar world
  • Collective Bargaining Act 1950 led to Union competition and deal making
  • Nowadays there has been a change to this deal making with only unions with a certain (30%) national coverage being able to sign binding agreements
  • Unions do have the capacity to show a united front when necessary
  • If the membership numbers fall any further will Unions have any future significance at all?
  • The Trade Unions are often slow to adapt to historical changes.
  • Core / Periphery conflict – also changing nature of working class – plus new divides in the workplace such as class and gender
  • Emergence of new Radical Unions (eg. SUD) due to disillusionment with traditional antiquated organizations that the workers feel have failed them
  • Has capitalism eroded the class solidarity of the proletariat?
  • A new form of Marxism needs to emerge with present and future technological advances.
  • The theoretical models that Unions history encompasses are no longer valid
  • Perhaps back to the internationals – with the rise and continuation of globalization. European / Global working class / worker movements

Emmanuel Macron – Current President of France

  • Despite overwhelming victory in May 2017, Macron has quickly lost all his popularity
  • Massive changes to French Labour Laws although to date the unions have surprisingly failed to motivate large strikes, another signal of poor present state of trade unions
  • Widespread Public Sector discontent
  • Pensions reform and redundancies, local authority taxes
  • More Collective Bargaining to weaken trade unions
  • Favours wealthy eg. Wealth Tax
  • Political Left Divided and no real presidential candidate has emerged, also even the Right (Macron fought Marine Le Pen in the Presidential runoff) has its divisions and problems
  • He needs to reduce the chômage (unemployment) statistics by 2020 or like his predecessor François Holland, a failure to do this will cost him his job
  • See himself as a Napoleon / De Gaulle figure – l’homme providentiel – A semi divine Jupiter, the Saviour of France


  • EWC – European Works Committees – dealing with multinational corporations
  • We have already seen the first Euro-strikes –Renault, Marks & Spencer
  • Continued rise of Right-wing politics threatens very existence of traditional left, essential to Trade Union base
  • Crisis of Technology and mass unemployment – Macron Government tackling this issue now, unlike the UK Government
  • Micro-corporatism to continue to evolve, eroding further traditional trade union strategies and improved technologies will lead to workplace redundancies non an unprecedented scale. Never before in history have we reached such a critical stage whereby technology will replace humans in the workplace
  • Switzerland – Universal Payments for whole population – being mentioned in France and other Western countries
  • Will French working class retain their reactive nature? Trade Unions need to realign and reform. I can see more days of action and perhaps more resistance to changes in globalized economy – eg. Anti-capitalist marches etc.