Non-governmental organisations in France are influential critics of corporate bad behaviour in recent years but few work alongside business to bring...

The role of non-governmental organisations as responsible business watchdogs has expanded recently in France. But companies and NGOs remain wary of one another.

"Ten years ago, corporations were free to do what they wanted," says Antonio Manganella, corporate social responsibility advocacy officer at French development NGO, CCFD-Terre Solidaire. "Now there are a lot of active NGOs in France that want to extend public control over [corporations]."

The main focus for NGOs in France is the overseas behaviour of companies. The priority issues are the protection of the fundamental rights of workers in supplier companies, access to justice for workers, and "social dumping and pollution" in poorer countries, Manganella says.

The divide between companies and NGOs means the latter rely on publicising the bad practices of corporations as a stimulus to make the former act, rather than on working on problems together from the outset. Most firms "don't consider [NGOs] a legitimate partner," Manganella says. Companies also argue that corporate responsibility is too expensive and would make business operations less competitive.

He says French companies too often take a too short-term view of social initiatives and sustainability measures, with responsibility seen primarily as a means for firms to polish their images.

Working together

Nevertheless, more progressive companies have put partnerships in place. Jan Noterdaeme, senior adviser to CSR Europe, highlights supermarket giant Carrefour as a good example. It does not merely audit and report but tries to team up with NGOs to find solutions to specific social or sustainability problems. But such an approach is not as mainstream in France as it is in some northern European countries, Noterdaeme says.

Evelyne Pichenot, a member of France's Economic, Social and Environmental Council, which advises the French government and parliament, also cites Carrefour and its partnership with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) as a corporate responsibility model.

Carrefour and FIDH have worked together since 1997, putting in place a charter that sets out the social obligations of suppliers and aims to ensure their respect for fundamental rights. To implement the charter, Carrefour and FIDH set up a consultative committee, which has a separate legal identity, and can carry out unannounced audits of suppliers. The committee also works with NGOs in developing countries on supplier auditing and training.

France's powerful trade unions support the work on improving conditions in supplier countries. Jan Noterdaeme says: "Trade unions have a very positive influence and are very active in the field of international framework agreements [IFAs]." These, negotiated between transnational corporations and international unions, are designed to ensure that international labour standards are adhered to, wherever a company or its suppliers are operating. "The French with their syndicates have really played an important role in this," Noterdaeme says. "IFAs are a kind of French speciality."

Suspicious minds

The suspicion with which French companies and NGOs regard each other has surfaced in the Grenelle process, the wide-ranging consultation on sustainability introduced by president Nicolas Sarkozy.

An NGO and union umbrella group, the Civic Forum on CSR, which is coordinated by CCFD-Terre Solidaire, and which participates in the Grenelle, has accused the government of not following through on its promises about the extension of responsibility reporting requirements to more companies.

The Civic Forum wants all companies with 500 or more employees, and a minimum turnover of 43m, to be obliged to report on their sustainability performance, with independent auditing of reports. However, current discussions on the scope of the regulations could result in only companies with 5,000 employees or more having to report.

In an open letter to the prime minister, François Fillon, the NGOs said the spirit of the Grenelle had been undermined.

But there are also government voices calling for a more strict interpretation of the regulations. Ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet argues that companies have used the economic crisis as an excuse to resist more stringent reporting requirements. On the extension of sustainability reporting to firms with 500 or more employees, she said at the end of January: "I am fighting [within government] for that to be respected."

Another party in the Grenelle talks is the non-profit CSR Study Centre (Orse). Orse project manager Mélanie Czepik underlines the notion of a lack of communication between NGOs and companies. "Companies should ask trade unions and NGOs what kind of information they would like to read in the reports and provide that information," she says. She adds that if there could be more co-operation, the responsibility performance of French companies "could be a lot better."

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