Industrial relations in France. From the underdevelopment of collective bargaining to the failure of neocorporatist concertation

Publication Date04 Jun 2018
AuthorUdo Rehfeldt
subjectMatterHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Industrial relations in France
From the underdevelopment of collective
bargaining to the failure of
neocorporatist concertation
Udo Rehfeldt
Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales, Noisy le Grand Cedex, France
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to present the actors, institutions and changing rules of the French
system of industrial relations (IR). It questions whether the traditional view of the French model as
state-centricis still adequate.
Design/methodology/app roach Based on institutionalist IR theories of social regulation and
neocorporatism, the paper analyses the evolution of the French IR system froma State-centricmodel to the
development of collectivebargaining, bothat the sector and companylevel, as well as of tripartiteconcertation.
Findings Initially based on adversarial relations between trade unions and employers, compensated by
strong state interventionism, the French IR system has experienced a series of reforms, adopted under the
pressure of the unions in the 1980s and mostly under the pressure of the employersorganisations since
the turn of the century. These reforms boosted collective bargaining at the workplace level and tripartite
concertation at the peak level. The paper analyses the limits of both developments and explains why a
reversal of the hierarchy of norms was imposed in 2016 by law without prior concertation.
Originality/value The paper presents an original explanation of the change of the initial French IR model,
stressing the importance of power relations and the role of IR experts in the different reform moments.
Keywords Government policy, Trade unions, Industrial relations, Collective bargaining,Representativeness,
Tripartite concertation
Paper type Research paper
The French model of industrial relations (IR) is often considered as part of a Mediterranean
model, which includes Italy, Spain and Portugal[1]. These countries have indeed some
common features concerning the trade union structure: trade union pluralism and the
heritage of a Communist-dominated unionism. In the literature, these countries are assigned
to a polarised and state-centricmodel which is characterised by a high level of conflict,
frequent state intervention and instability of collective bargaining (European Commission,
2009, p. 49). We will here leave aside whether such a characterisation is correct for all the
countries mentioned, but we will question whether it is still valid for France. Our thesis is
that the positioning of the French system of industrial relationships within the European
variety is subject to a movement of change, which begun in the 1980s and has accelerated
since the 2008 crisis. We observe a slow departure from French exceptionalismof state
dominance towards the development of collective bargaining at all levels, but with a strong
dynamic of workplace agreements. Since 2008, there was also a move towards
neocorporatism, through the development of tripartite concertation, which, however,
came to a provisional halt in 2015, which was confirmed since the election of president
Macron in 2017. Both developments, decentralisation and concertation, were fostered by a
series of reform laws, adopted under the pressure of the unions in the 1980s and mostly
under the pressure of the employersorganisations since the turn of the century.
Before we analyse these changes of the intensity, levels and rules of collective
bargaining, we will briefly identify, in a first part, the French IR research traditions and their
shortcomings. In a second part, we will present the actors and institutions of the French IR
system. In a third part, we will analyse the different stages of the development of collective
Employee Relations
Vol. 40 No. 4, 2018
pp. 617-633
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/ER-02-2017-0033
Received 14 February 2017
Revised 15 October 2017
Accepted 15 October 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
in France
bargaining since the 1980s, and conclude with failure of tripartite concertation in 2015 and
the forced adoption of reform laws in 2016 and 2017 that reverse the traditional hierarchy of
norms and give legal priority to bargaining at the company level.
1. The academic research traditions and their shortcomings
Unlike in the Anglo-Saxon countries, IR do not exist in France as an academic discipline.
There are no diplomas in IR. In the universities or in business schools, IR are, however,
taught as part of courses in sociology, law or HR management. IR research exists as an
interdisciplinary approach made up of labour economics, labour law and industrial
sociology, rarely also of political science (Caire, 1996; da Costa, 2005). In 1981, an IR research
network, called GRECO (later GDR) Relations professionnelles[2], was created with the
financial support of the National Council of Scientific Research (CNRS). It linked economists,
labour lawyers and sociologists from 12 research centres and organised seminars and
conferences. The results were published in form of books and a series of Cahiers des
relations professionnelles, conceived as a prototype of a scientific journal of IR, which still
does not exist in France. In 1998, the CNRS stopped its funding, arguing that the scientific
IR milieu was now sufficiently structured and could live without the funding. This opinion
soon proved to be erroneous. In 2007, IR researchers created a new research network called
RT 18 within the French Association of Sociology (Association Française de Sociologie, the
new name of the former Société Française de Sociologie since 2002). Like the GDR, it was
conceived as interdisciplinary, but had no financial backing. Very soon, it was dominated by
a sociological approach. Labour lawyers are more present in the French Association for the
Study of Industrial Relations(Association Française dEtude des Relations Professionnelles,
AFERP). It was created in 1966, at the same time as the International IR Association
(IIRA, now ILERA), of which it constitutes the French national chapter. Its membership is
composed by labour law academics, retired HR directors, trade unionists and
representatives of employersorganisations. It is not a research network and very few IR
researchers are members or attend the seminars organised by the associations.
The leading historical figure of IR research and theory is Jean-Daniel Reynaud, an
industrial sociologist who interestingly was a founding member of both AFERP and the
GRECO-GDR. He was also co-founder in 1959 of the first and still most important French
journal of labour sociology, Sociologie du Travail, co-founder in 1964 of the Société Française
de Sociologie (and its president from 1966 to 1968), and finally president of the IIRA
(1976-1979). In 1969, he created the Laboratoire de Sociologie du Travail et des Relations
Professionnelles, the only French research centre which would have IRin its name, but
which, after several splits and mergers, does no longer exist as such. Together with other
industrial sociologists like Michel Crozier and Alain Touraine, who later abandoned the IR
field, Reynaudwas intellectually linkedto the Christian trade unionCFTC, which later became
the CFDT (see below).Under the influence of Anglo-Saxontheorists like Dunlop and Flanders,
he developed a theory of joint regulation, later simply called social regulation(Reynaud,
1979, 1989/1997,2012; de Terssac, 2003).The two recent manuals on IR (Lallement,1996/2008;
Bevort and Jobert, 2008)refer positively to this theory. Reynaudet al. (1990) thus contributed
to familiarise the French academic IR community with the Dunlops theory of IR systems
(Dunlop, 1958),which has been, 30 years after its edition, thetopic in an important conference
organised by the GDR[3].
Reynauds theoretical approach was challenged by the Aix School, named after the
interdisciplinary research institute Laboratoire dEconomie et de Sociologie du Travail
(LEST), located in Aix-en-Provence. Its leadingfigureswerethesociologistMarcMaurice
and the economists François Sellier and Jean-Jacques Sylvestre. They challenged
Reynauds assumption of the autonomy of the IR system and fostered a societal
approach, which put forward the embeddedness of IR within other social spheres, namely

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