France – Franchise Networks and the employment act

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France is a great market for franchise networks where almost 2,000 networks are operated. It is one of the most successful scheme of developing business.

Franchisor must mainly respect French regulations on pre-disclosure information and French and EU competition regulations, among others rules. Although the control of the quality of its network and of its brand image is a very important and legitimate issue for franchisor, the latter cannot interfere too much in the day-to-day activity of the franchisees, since franchisees are independent businesses. Therefore relations between franchisors and franchisees are only based on commercial law and not on employment law. However, recent French rules will lead franchisors to implement some employment law rules with their franchisees and franchisees’ employees.

Foreign franchisors operating franchise networks in France must indeed know how to deal with the constraints incurred by the Employment Act (dated 08 August 2016) and its Decree (dated 04 May 2017), and effective as from May 07 2017, relating to the creation of an employee forum for the whole franchise network. Indeed this Social Dialogue Committee can impact deeply the organization of franchise networks.

First of all, only networks in which operators are bound by franchise agreements are concerned by the new social dialogue committee. Accordingly, trademark licensing and distribution contracts appear not to be included. Franchise agreements should be understood as sui generis contracts that are the sum of three separate agreements: a trademark licensing agreement, a know-how licensing agreement, and a commercial or technical assistance agreement. However, the Act of 08 august 2016 creates some confusion by stating that the franchise agreements concerned by this Social Dialogue Committee are the agreements “referred to in article L330-3 of the French Commercial Code”, although not only does that article not define what a franchise contract is, it may also apply to other contracts (exclusive distribution agreements) to determine whether the network fall into the scope of this Act.

Furthermore, according to the Act, only specific franchise agreements including “clauses that have an impact on work organisation and conditions in franchisee businesses” are concerned. The Act does not define such clauses although, on the one hand, whether a social dialogue committee is called for depends on identifying such clauses, and on the other hand, franchisees are in essence independent of the franchisor when organising and managing their business, including in employment matters. It will therefore be necessary to conduct an employment audit of all franchise agreements (for instance, what happens if a clause sets opening hours or defines a dress code?) to determine whether the network fall into the scope of this Act.

Finally, a Social Dialogue Committee is only called for in franchise networks employing at least 300 staff working (full-time) in France. It would seem that this does not include the franchisor’s employees or the employees of operators that are not bound to the network’s head by a franchise agreement (e.g., operators bound by a trademark licensing contract).

An implementation implying a long negotiation

Even where the legal requirements are met, franchisors are under no obligation to set up a Social Dialogue Committee spontaneously. However, once a trade union has called for an Social Dialogue Committee to be set up, the franchisor does have an obligation to take part actively in the negotiations initiated by that trade, to check with all the franchisees whether the number of employees in its network reaches the 300 threshold, and then to set up a “negotiation forum” made of representatives of employees (trade unions) and of employers (franchisor and franchisees) to negotiate an agreement creating and organizing the future Social Dialogue Committee.

The negotiations with trade unions and franchisees will end, within six months, in an agreement subject to the consent of franchisor, trade union(s) and at least of 30% of the franchisees (representing 30 % of the employees of the network). This agreement shall define the Social Dialogue Committee’s composition, how its members are designated, their term of office, the frequency of meetings, if and how many hours employees may dedicate to the committee, the material or financial means required for the committee to fulfill its purpose, and how running and meeting costs and representatives’ travel and subsistence expenses are handled, among other things. This last issue could be a major concern not only for franchisor but also for franchisees-employers. Failing to reach such agreement, the Decree imposes the creation of the Social Dialogue Committee with several strict and minimum provisions which could create unreasonable burden for the franchisor.

Once set up, internal rules define precisely how the Social Dialogue Committee is to function (required majorities, notices of meeting and referral, publication of debates, etc.).

Much ado about nothing?

The Social Dialogue Committee does not have the authority to investigate cases or to issue binding rulings, but the Social Dialogue Committee must be kept informed of franchisees joining or leaving the network and “of the franchisor’s decisions liable to impact the volume and structure of staff, working time, or the employment, work, and vocational training conditions of the franchisees’ employees”.

The Social Dialogue Committee may also make suggestions for improving such conditions throughout the network.

The impact of the Social Dialogue Committee is eventually rather limited, but franchisors have to master and control seriously the implementation of the rules in order to avoid loss of times and energy by their own franchisees and a disorganisation of its network.

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Christophe Hery
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