French Workplace Courts Mediate Disputes
In the Prud'hommes, local panels with medieval roots, judges elected by workers and bosses dispense efficient justice
`CAN you demonstrate, Maitre, that Monsieur Barrabas actually made use of information provided by his wife, to the prejudice of her employer?"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A dozen or so people sit in scattered rows facing the bench. Behind it, four judges, medallions hung around their necks on broad tricolor ribbons, listen to the testimony. The case has been brought by a telecommunications specialist fired for allegedly passing trade secrets to her husband, who works for her company's competition. A dockworker in bluejeans and sneakers presides.
This is the Conseil des Prud'hommes, a tribunal for the settlement of workplace disputes that is unique to France. Any conflict pitting an individual employee against his or her employer is brought first before the Prud'hommes. Four conseillers (councilors) - two workers, two employers - judge each case. They are elected and have no advanced legal training, but their decisions are binding. Steady rise in cases
Serge Faye, who directs legal services for one of France's three main labor federations and has been a councilor since 1979, says the most striking development in the Prud'hommes' activity has been its extension across all fields of employment. "Whereas in the past, certain branches of industry might have been particularly concerned, now it's everyone: industry, commerce, the service sector, white-collar workers, too," Mr. Faye says.
In 1991, more than 200,000 cases were brought before the Prud'hommes and some 148,000 were concluded. These numbers have risen steadily over the last 15 years.
Every major town has a Prud'homal council - 279 spread across France. The Paris chamber is in a northeastern neighborhood amid bakeries and cafes. The building is squat and square, made entirely of tinted glass. Its five color-coded floors correspond to the council's five sections (administration, commerce, industry, agriculture, and diverse). The hearing rooms are spare and clean, decorated only by a bust of Liberty, who looks down from an alcove in the wall behind the bench.
The only archaic thing about the Paris council is the name above the doorway. In Old French, prud'homme meant a "prudent man," a man respected for his character and good judgment.
The notion that ordinary men (and today women) of repute should judge their peers goes back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when nascent towns were fighting for their autonomy from the landed nobility. One of the clauses often demanded in early town charters was that the burghers be free from the lord's justice, which was slow, costly, and ill-suited to the new flood of commercial disputes that concerned the burgeoning towns.
It was Napoleon who founded, in the Lyon silk works, the institution as it has survived to the present day. At the turn of the 20th century - against a backdrop of economic crisis, violent strikes, and a growing revolutionary trade-union movement - the tribunal achieved its crucial modern elements: universal competence in the domains of industry, commerce, and transport; women's eligibility to vote and serve; and equal division of judges between management and labor, with presidents rotating.
To Philippe Sommers, an employer and past Prud'homal councilor in Fontainebleau, it is this equality that is most impressive about the Prud'hommes. "Parity among the judges," he says, "imposes an equal dialogue. And that leads to a justice that is less false."
Also critical, in Mr. Sommers's view, is that the councilors are not legal specialists. "We're workers and employers first. Only secondly are we jurisprudents. We're men of good sense and experience. And it really works."
Prud'homal justice is relatively swift: An average case spends between eight and 10 months in the system, slightly less than an ordinary civil suit. A hearing rarely takes more than half an hour, and except in extraordinary circumstances, councilors deliberate and announce their decision immediately.