NOTE: this article was originally posted on the SPERI blog in December 2015.
The terrorist attacks in Paris have again highlighted the problem of social divisions in France and the extent to which they lead to feelings of exclusion that in some way incite violent responses. It appears that some of the terrorists grew up in or had links to the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris, where there are high concentrations of immigrants and minority ethnic groups, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty and a recent history of racial tensions. Many of the youth in the banlieues are unemployed, with the unemployment rate for immigrant youth above 30% according to the OECD. More generally, migrants and their children are also over-represented in low qualified jobs, with workers of North African origins experiencing the highest ethnic penalty in terms of access to employment.
France has a republican model of integration, built on the universalist values of the 1789 Revolution of secularism and equal individual rights for all. Recognition of cultural difference or ethnic communities is considered unacceptable. In contrast to the British multiculturalist model, where ‘difference’ – whether of ethnicity or religion – is tolerated or even prized, ‘difference’ in France is seen as a form of sectarianism and a threat to the republic. The French notion of laïcité, dating back to the Revolution, actively blocks religious interference in affairs of state and public manifestations of religious identity in public spaces, including workplaces. The problem for the recent generations of Muslim immigrants to France is that the proclaimed universalism of republican values – and the focus on assimilation – has meant that many Muslims feel that, if they want to be ‘French’, they must learn to be citizens of the republic first and Muslims second. This is a difficult and, for some, impossible task.
My recent research has looked at how trade unions have responded to migrant and minority workers in France. As context, it should be said that trade unions in France have one of the lowest levels of membership density among OECD countries, with only around 8% of workers being members of a union. Moreover, the union movement is divided along ideological and political lines. It also confronts ideological employers, which means that social dialogue tends to be conflictual and fairly hollow.
However, trade unions in France still have a high level of institutional embeddedness, manifest in the level of collective bargaining attained with over 90% of workers covered by some form of collective agreement. They also benefit from relatively high levels of worker turnout in workplace representative elections which are organised every 2-4 years. Elected worker representatives participate and negotiate at all levels of the organisation and enjoy a legal framework for employee representation that is the envy of trade unions in the UK, including a right to strike enshrined in the French constitution.
My previous work on French trade unions has shown that the institutional embeddedness of trade unions gives them access to resources (time, space and financing) that allows them to represent the wider interests of workers and mount campaigns to organise workers who are excluded from regulated spaces, both inside and outside the workplace. The unionisation rate among immigrant workers is only around 2%. However, this figure is based on nationality, not ethnic origin, as ethnic monitoring is not permitted in France. Migrants and their descendants are likely to be counted as ‘nationals’ as soon as they access French citizenship. This of course poses problems in terms of how we can study issues of social exclusion and discrimination, as the data needed often doesn’t exist.
What is emerging from my research in France is that trade union behaviour is still fundamentally shaped by the assimilationist model of integration. For migrants and minorities working in France this has generally meant that they have had to leave their ethnic and religious identities at the factory gates, the office door and even the picket line. One trade union activist to whom I spoke about Muslim workers taking part in a strike said that there was a ‘time for everything’ and added that he had told Muslim workers that praying on the picket line was not appropriate. There was no issue with the workers being Muslim; only the public demonstration of religious identity.
Attitudes have been changing, however, as evidenced in the debates on the wearing of headscarves. In a recent case where a woman was fired for refusing to remove the veil when asked to do so by her employer, trade unions supported the court’s decision which allowed women to wear the headscarf when working for private employers and thus not involved in providing public services. There has also been some recognition and support by trade unions for workers discriminated against on the basis of nationality and immigrant status in the past. This was the case recently when 800 Moroccan workers, working on private contracts for the public railways since the 1970s, won a case of discrimination, as they had been excluded from the benefits and status of the public-sector workers alongside whom they worked.
Even though they still approach the issue from a mainly race-blind and social rights perspective, trade unions have made attempts to integrate undocumented migrant workers who have been excluded from accessing their labour rights. Trade unions in and around Paris have done a lot of campaigning around and organising of the sans papiers workers, a large number of whom are of African origin. Ever since the 1970s trade unions have been in favour of the regularisation of undocumented workers and from the early 2000s onwards organised mass strikes of these workers to demand regularisation and respect for their labour rights. As a result, over 5,000 workers have been regularised in recent years and the campaigns continue, with greater numbers of undocumented workers organising campaigns themselves with the support of the trade unions.
This brings me back to the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent discussions around social exclusion. There surely now exists a double challenge for trade unions to act as a force for integration for socially excluded members of society. Firstly, migrant and minority workers tend to work either in the margins or not at all, which means trade unions find it difficult to access and represent them. Secondly, the denial of ethnic and racial differences means that structural and institutional forms of discrimination and exclusion are ignored or not explicitly addressed, which can easily lead to a lack of engagement with the trade union movement on the part of workers who feel they have to suppress their core identities.
By contrast, the successes of the sans papiers campaign shows that trade unions can organise in sectors with high concentrations of migrants and minority workers and can demand labour rights for those working and living on the margins of society. France needs its trade unions to build on this example.