Do French trade unions still hold sway over the street?

Do French trade unions still hold sway over the street?
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 05 April 2023 04:45

Trade union leaders are set to meet Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne today after a long stalemate over the pensions reform.


French trades unions have fought President Emmanuel Macron to a near standstill on pension reform. They have disrupted the country for more than two months. After a long standoff, trade union leaders are meeting Macron’s chief lieutenant Elisabeth Borne today to discuss the pensions affair.

The union leaders enjoy popularity ratings that politicians — both government and opposition — can only dream about. The French unions appear strong, popular and united — for now. They brought out protesting crowds of over 1 million nationwide on three occasions since mid-January. And yet the ferocity of their opposition to a relatively modest reform can be explained partly by their fundamental weakness.

Unions are a French paradox — one of many. In Germany or the Netherlands, or even in Britain, the unions have more members and fewer internal divisions. They are more willing to consider arguments about long-term prosperity and the stability of the welfare system. In France, the unions are splintered and have few paid-up members. They are financed mostly by the state and by a tax on business.

And yet parts of the movement, drawn from a narrow and militant strand of opinion, have a culture of permanent revolt against the state hand that feeds them. Other French federations are more “reformist” but constrained by the militancy of their rivals.

France has fewer trades union members — just under 9 percent of the workforce — than any large country in the European Union. In the private sector, only 5 percent of French workers are union members. And yet this low membership is scattered over a jumble of eight trade union federations, ranging from the anti-capitalist to the Christian democratic, by way of the reformist, the managerial and the bloody-minded.

Britain and the United States are content with one union federation, Germany with three. France has eight of them.

Borne meets trade union head honchos

An ephemeral intersyndicale — or union of all these union federations — will attend a meeting with PM Borne in Paris Wednesday. The meeting will not last long.

Borne says that she will talk about everything but the pension reform, which was pushed through parliament by special, constitutional powers last month. She wants to tempt the moderate unions to “move on” and discuss issues like a law to force businesses to share “exceptional profits” with their workers.

The unions insist that the increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64 (over seven years) must be scrapped first. If Borne refuses to consider that (as she will), they will walk out.

After many years of membership decline and inter-union warfare, Macron and Borne underestimated the capacity of the unions to form a common front against pension reform. This was a serious blunder.

The unions knew that pension reform was deeply resented beyond their own narrow ranks. They saw an opportunity to rebuild their strength and restore their influence.

Macron and Borne still hope that union unity might shatter in the coming weeks. They will probably be disappointed.

Despite what their success in bringing out protesting crowds might imply, France’s trade unions have fewer members than other large EU member countries | Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images

The honchos and their calculus; What it means for Macron

And yet the unions’ common front scarcely conceals deep hatreds and jealousies. The different union federations — especially the two largest, the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) and the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) — are in a permanent low-level struggle for influence and survival.

Since 2017, the CGT — ex-communist, anti-reform and anti-boss — has lost its position as the most popular French union federation to the CFDT, which regards itself as pragmatic and anti-“liberal” but not anti-capitalist.

The CGT’s leader until last week was Philippe Martinez, 62, a French union boss from central casting, with a rasping voice and drooping moustache. The boss of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, 56, is a professional trades union official. He has the anxious, determined look of a successful football coach.

The CFDT, traditionally “constructive,” supported the last two attempts at pension reform in France in 2015 and 2019. That approach was unpopular with many CFDT members and branches, who are frequently less “constructive” than the national leadership.

On this occasion — despite pleas from Macron and Borne that he should remain neutral — Berger ferociously opposed any increase in the official pension age. In part, that was based on personal conviction. It also conveniently squashed his internal CFDT critics, angered by the union’s fall in support in civil service workplace elections in December.

Berger made a deal with Martinez and the CGT, and the other federations: He would form a broad front against the pension reform but only on CFDT terms. There could be strike days and marches but no open-ended strikes or low-level terrorism (a CGT specialty) like targeted power cuts or vandalism of railway infrastructure.

Nationally, the CGT and Martinez stuck to the deal. At the local level, the CGT and other militant federations (such as Force Ouvrière and Sud) called open-ended strikes. There were power cuts and attacks on railway signaling systems.

The uneasy union alliance survived — to the anger of many of the more militant CGT branches. They accused Martinez of becoming a lapdog of Berger. At the federation’s national conference last week — the last before Martinez stepped down — his “state of the union” report was rejected by the membership.

So was his hand-picked successor. Two candidates sponsored by the “even more militant” wing of the CGT were also rejected.

An unexpected face will therefore represent France’s oldest and most obdurate union federation at today’s meeting with the prime minister.

Sophie Binet, 41, does not look in the least like a French union leader from central casting. She is the first woman to lead a union still dominated by male-dominated heavy industries, like transport and power. She is a former student union leader who represents the CGT white-collar branch — one of its weakest.

Her supporters say that she will steer the CGT away from its old ideological, anti-boss obsessions and focus on issues like climate change and equal opportunities for women. Her detractors say that she cannot succeed where Martinez failed and curb the excesses of the powerful CGT branches in transport and energy.

President Emmanuel Macron significantly underestimated the capacity of the unions to form a common front against his government’s pension reform | Dimitris Kapantais/Sooc/AFP via Getty Images

And yet there is another paradox here — a paradox within a paradox. The moderate CFDT has become more militant; the obdurate CGT has elected a modernizing woman as compromise leader.

In the short term, that is bad news for Macron. Sophie Binet and Laurent Berger, both cautious reformists, both viscerally opposed to a later retirement age, are determined to hold the union alliance together.

In the longer term, the CGT may splinter (not for the first time in its history). Alternatively, the generational change in the CGT may be a pivotal moment in France’s bizarre trades union history.

It will not give France overnight the kind of constructive trades union movements that exist in Germany or the Netherlands. It could, however, shift the balance of French union power towards the workforce battles of the 21st century, rather than those of the 20th or the 19th.

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