Air France, Fair France? A Look at French Labour Unrest

Sarah MacDonald

When one thinks of Paris, the sight of a half-dressed executive running from an angry mob is far from the first thing that comes to mind. However, this is exactly what has been shown by world media over the past weeks. The conflict started with the airline Air France’s cost cutting measures, which they deemed necessary amid increasing competition from cheap European carriers. This lead to the proposition from Air France that their pilots fly an additional 100 hours a year, for the same salary—approximately €150-170 000, or $CAD220 600-250 000 a year at senior levels. The pilots’ union staunchly rejected this proposal. With the rejection of this proposal, Air France turned to plan B: cutting 2900 jobs—including 300 pilots, 900 cabin crew, and 1700 ground staff—abolishing five routes, and 35 weekly long-haul flights.

Needless to say, employees were not happy. What was meant to be a works council meeting ended with protesters storming the offices in the Charles De Gaulle airport zone, and ripping the clothing off of executives Xavier Broseta and Pierre Plissonnier. The scene ended with Broseta having to climb over a fence, away from the angry mob, with the help of security. Five Air France staff were ultimately arrested—all of which were members of the CGT labour union.

Resorting to extreme measures in industrial negotiations are nothing new in France. From instances of “bossnapping,” to the trashing of managerial offices, France’s unions and their workers have a history of extreme behaviour in labour relations. While much of these extreme measures happen outside of ‘official’ union channels, unions heads tend to justify this behavior—as was the case with the 2014 bossnapping of Goodyear executives, with union leaders, ironically, describing the kidnapping atmosphere as “calm.”

Many people blame the presence of strong unions in France for these incidents. The commonly held assumption is that many French employees are paying members of unions; however, this is not the case. Only about 8% of French workers belong to a trade union, which is far less than countries such as Germany and Britain, and even less than the United States. Even though membership in unions is low, it is written into French Law that unions have a central place in the running of workers’ lives. This means that employees are an integral part of the industrial relations system—a system that many French people believe has failed them.

As the Economist notes, “under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees, union members or not, in firms with over 50 staff on both works councils and separate health-and-safety councils.” Accordingly, unions are important bodies that represent the workers’ interests, and therefore must be consulted in managerial decisions, which gives them a strong voice in daily decision-making of many companies. When such an important voice in the workers interests involves itself in this kind of violence, their legitimacy as a democratic outlet is threatened. In response to the violence, Philippe Martinez, the Secretary General of the CGT union said that while the union does not condone violence, they believe the political and media reaction to be disproportionate. Rather, he would like to attach more importance to the 3000 layoffs. According to Martinez, social violence should talk more, and when it comes to losing your job, that’s violence.

The history of revolution in France is well known, indicating that perhaps this revolutionary zeal can be attributed to some of the class-war, and historically ingrained revolutionary attitudes in the country; however, it does not explain everything. Policy mechanisms written into French law—including the disproportionate importance given to unions—are also to blame.

Another reason for the escalation in violence could be attributed to France’s slowing economy. When the euro was adopted, France and Germany’s economies were more or less on par. However, in recent years, there has been a divergence, with France falling behind Germany on most major counts. The telegraph even purports that France is coming to “resemble the peripheral countries rather than the Germanic core of the monetary union.” France has seen major rises in unemployment, creating a desperate atmosphere, which does not help labour relations. Moreover, in a system where individuals are increasingly going outside the unions in dealing with labour relations, the unions struggle to find their place.

While labour relations in France are often testy—to say the least—the level of violence that has recently occurred has shocked even the French, and has drawn widespread condemnation from the people and their president. Social media and the rise of 24 hour news has allowed the story to circle around the globe, and people are understandably upset by the violence that has recently taken place. In an industrial relations environment that has moved beyond dialogue and toward violent tactics, a change must be made, lest the ethical relationship of fraternité within France’s motto becomes nothing more than a distant memory.



Sarah MacDonald is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University, where she completed a joint honours in Political Science and International Development Studies, with a minor in English Theatre and Drama. Sarah’s main policy interests include healthcare, aboriginal, and foreign policy. ​


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