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What impact have Macron’s 2017 labour reforms had on social dialogue and employee representation?

Union demonstration in La Defense, Paris. Eric Piermont/ AFP

In the context of the upcoming French presidential elections in 2022, what has been the impact of Emmanuel Macron’s controversial labour reforms introduced in 2017?

A 2021 report by France Stratégie evaluating Macron’s 2017 labour reforms concludes that after four years, the implementation of measures to reform social dialogue and employee representation have been effective overall. Our study of seven large companies contributed to the report’s analysis, concluding that the ambition to strengthen social dialogue is yet to be realised.

In-depth study

In 2017, unions contested the reforms, pushed through by decree, viewing them as part of a pro-business agenda to weaken the role of unions and employee representation. Part of the wide-ranging reforms aimed to strengthen social dialogue by simplifying the structures of employee representation.

The reforms required French companies to set up a new employee representative body, the Comité social et économique (social and economic committee, CSE) for firms with over 11 employees by December 2019. This new body merged three separate bodies, délégués du personnel (employee delegates, DP), comité d'entreprise (works council, CE) and the comité d'hygiène, de santé et des conditions de travail (health, safety and working conditions committee, CHSCT). Prior to the reforms, each of these bodies had a high degree of autonomy and access to institutional resources, in the form of time off for representative duties, budgets and regular meetings with management.

Our observations are based on an in-depth study assessing the implementation of this new representative body in seven large companies over an 18-month period during 2020-2021. The findings draw on over 150 interviews with managers and employee representatives in companies across retail, finance, energy and pharmaceuticals. Our research study fed into the official France Stratégie evaluation committee’s report published in December 2021.

In our analysis, we focus on three structural tensions relating to the efficiency of social dialogue, either initially sought by the reforms or expected by company management. They are organised around three key terms: centralisation, simplification, and integration.

Selective centralisation

The centralisation of workplace representation was a consequence, either hoped by management, or feared by unions, of the merging of representative institutions. Overall, there was a desire on the part of management to break with what they saw as burdensome representative structures. Eliminating the role of the DP, a role sanctioned to raise individual questions from employees with management, has meant that individual issues are more likely to be dealt with informally, and without record, with line managers or raised as collective ‘themes’ in CSE meetings.

Under the legislation there is provision for local representatives (représentants de proximité), to maintain links with employees. However, the rights and responsibilities attributed to this role are negotiated at company level. There was uncertainty on both sides about the role of local representatives and we observed a variety of different responses in our case study companies. Union representatives in one company said they decided not to introduce local representatives, as they had no legal rights, but the majority of companies implemented some form of local representatives. In another company, an ad hoc committee was set up within the CSE to replicate the DP function, and to deal with and bring up individual questions from employees.

While some companies’ management used the reforms to restructure and centralise onerous employee representation, in others, managers and unions tried to find ways to maintain existing forms of local dialogue and representation.

Unrealised simplification

Our research shows that for both management and unions the organisation of employee representation has been significantly disrupted by the introduction of the new body and has introduced a level of complexity that runs counter to the reform’s aim of simplifying employee representation.

The merging of the representative bodies shifted large parts of the debate to the peripheral committees that come under the CSE. Our findings suggest that having one representative body did not lead to a more efficient dialogue in plenary meetings, one reason being that there was a greater number of representatives in the CSE. In addition, from both management and union sides, there was a need for greater levels of preparation and coordination between committees prior to the meetings, which they considered time-consuming and far from simple.

From management’s perspective, the potential to block management decisions by the health and safety committee (CHSCT) or block management time with meetings dealing with individual questions (DP) is weaker and therefore employer discretion is greater. On the flipside, the union representatives felt a sense of loss from the disappearance of these bodies and, in some cases, there was resistance to the transfer to the new structures.

Incomplete integration

For some companies’ management, union pluralism was viewed as hampering dialogue and decision-making within representative bodies. This is potentially a greater issue in large companies where there are often multiple unions competing in elections for representative positions. Management expressed the wish for the CSE to be less of a deliberative forum for unions’ competing views but centred on discussion geared toward decision-making, with the CSE speaking as a collective actor.

In this ongoing transitionary phase, unions have been largely concerned with making sense of the new structures, adapting, and gaining and/or maintaining a fair representation. It remains to be seen over the longer term if a greater level of integration, in both form and content of the new representative structures can be achieved.

Reform ambitions and realities

The period during which our study was conducted needs to be taken into account, as the health crisis, still ongoing at the time of finalising the research, has also disrupted social dialogue by putting critical issues on the social agenda and changing the conditions under which the bodies meet. The actors involved in social dialogue have had to learn how to maintain dialogue at a distance and deal with issues at an accelerated pace.

Even so, our research supports existing arguments that show a gap between the ambitions of the reform and the perceptions of the social partners. While the government emphasised new dynamics for social dialogue and more flexibility at firm and sector levels, unions have felt weakened by the reform process and by the manner in which social dialogue has been conducted over recent years.

The year 2022-23 is a crucial period for unions to renegotiate existing CSE agreement, as this will be the second round of workplace elections under the new structure. Unions have made claims for revisions to the existing provisions, including making local representatives mandatory.

With the primacy given to company bargaining, the loosening of restrictions on redundancies in combination with the disruption and weakened institutional power of representative bodies, the 2017 reforms are part of a longer-term trend in France of state-led decentralisation and neoliberal transformation of employment relations.

Authors who contributed to this article : Rémi Bourguignon (Université Paris Est Créteil, IRG, scientific coordinator), Pauline de Becdelièvre (ENS Paris-Saclay, IDHES), Élodie Béthoux (UVSQ, Université Paris-Saclay, Printemps), Heather Connolly (Grenoble Ecole de Management), Arnaud Mias (Université Paris Dauphine-PSL, IRISSO), Paul Tainturier (IAE Paris Sorbonne, GREGOR)

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