France is one of the industrialized countries with the lowest level of unionization, and the unions are divided, particularly at political level. Nevertheless, their influence is considerable and they play a far more important political and social role than the low number of cardholders would seem to indicate.
The first trade union 'confederation' was the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), launched in 1895. Since then, unions have become embedded in the institutional framework as a 'social partner' to employers' associations and government, and they are one of the main channels for the resolution of conflicts in society. The right to belong to a union is written into the Preamble to the French Constitution, as is the right to strike. It is a long way from the past: during the nineteenth century, attempts to form workers' associations were severely repressed, and it was only after a long struggle that limited rights to form associations were won in 1864, and full rights recognized in 1884. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the CGT was the only 'confederation' (except the far smaller Christian CFTC), but it divided after the break-up between Communists and Socialists in 1920. In 1936, the two CGTs re-merged, but in 1947, with the Cold War starting, a strong minority split up to form the social democratic CGT-FO (later the FO, the Force Ouvrière) supported and funded at first by the United States, with the CGT increasingly under Communist influence. This was not the only split. In 1964, a majority of the CFTC, now a large 'confederation', decided to shed the religious dimension of the union, and became the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail), with a minority continuing the CFTC. Therefore, there are four main 'confederations': CGT, CFDT, FO and CFTC. But if that is not complicated enough, there is also a 'confederation' for middle management, the CGC (Confédération Générale des Cadres), and a number of independent, professionally based unions, for instance in education (FEN and FSU), in the police, etc.
This fragmentation appears disastrous, given that less than 8 per cent of the workforce hold a union card. Some sectors are well unionized (such as education and public transport), but others have only a residual membership (like trade and tourism). Membership has fallen steadily since the 1970s, as traditionally unionized industries suffered from the economic crisis, and the sociopolitical climate of France changed. Resort to strike action has become less frequent: between 3 million and 5 million work days were lost through strike in the 1970s every year, under 1 million since the late 1980s, and just under half a million in 1994. However, some national conflicts, such as those which occurred at the end of 1996 in protest against social security reforms and threats to public sector employment, still attract strong support.
The main 'confederations' also achieve much