Make Rights not War: Working Status of French Army on Standby Reconsidered

August 22, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has stipulated that France must grant its soldiers worker status.

What does this mean?

Frustrating France, whose armed forces were previously expected to be “available at all times and in all places”, the CJEU has determined that France’s forces are to be subject to the same labour laws as any other worker. The primary consideration pertains to minimum rest periods for soldiers and maximum weekly working hours of 48 hours. According to the CJEU, activities of the military which are not related to combat, including administration, maintenance, repair, etc., must comply with the minimum rest periods and maximum working hours, as per a European Directive adopted in 2003.

The Ministry of Armed Forces of France has maintained that this Directive runs contrary to the purpose of the French military, which can switch to operational functions at any time and with very short notice. It appears that there is a contention between the practical nature of France’s Armed Forces and European employment law.

What's the big picture effect?

The Ministry has argued that the availability required of French soldiers is adequately compensated for with generous annual leave and a right to full retirement after 17 years of service. France also argues that this is an example of “competence creep”, when the EU tries to extend its powers beyond the power given to it by the EU Treaties. The main point of contention is Article 4 of the Treaty on the European Union, especially Art. 4(2), which states that “national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State”. France argues that soldiers need to be available all the time in order to maintain national security, meaning that the EU cannot intervene. The CJEU was not convinced that activities of the military which are not related to combat, including administration, maintenance and repair were so related to national security that it justified a permanent deprivation of rights.

France has good reason to want a committed military force. The nation has fallen host to a swathe of attacks on its soil, including the 2003 Nice bombing, the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the 2015 Paris Bataclan attacks and the Bastille Day vehicle ramming in Nice. It is in the French interest to have armed forces on standby, ready to address attacks such as these to the protection of French citizens. Indeed, the terrorist threat is still categorised as high in France, and operation ‘Sentinelle’, meaning ‘Guardian’, is ongoing. Terrorism aside, French military forces are currently engaged across the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region and Western Africa, amounting to over 10,000 military personnel.

Florence Parly, Minister of the French Armed Forces, has stated that she is fiercely opposed to this possible change in the working status of the military personnel, averring that it is an essential issue for France’s national defence and European security at large. Interestingly, France is currently the only permanent member country of the UN Security Council, and so exercises notable responsibilities in the field of defence. This has bolstered France’s bid to maintain the status quo of their soldiers’ exemption from labour rights. Here, it may be considered that the European Union is biting the hand that feeds it peace.

 There is no possibility for France to appeal against the CJEU. However, the Ministry intends to consider how this will be expressed in French regulations. With the significant French bargaining power in the EU, this may not be the end of the story.

Report written by Matt Bryan

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