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It is the first time French trade unions have shown unity since their opposition to pension reform in 2010. Julien De Rosa/AFP

After Macron’s move to force through pension reform, all eyes are now on France’s trade unions

It was the nuclear option Emmanuel Macron’s government was hoping not to have to resort to. Speaking at the National Assembly over boos and chants of the national anthem, on the afternoon of Thursday 17 March, France’s prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, announced that the government would force through its controversial pension reform plans without a vote, a procedure enabled by article 49, paragraph 3 of the French constitution.

The latest scenes of turmoil follow two months of unrest in response to proposed pension reforms, which would raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64. At the time of writing, oppositions are scrambling to file no-confidence votes, which need to be submitted within 24 hours of article 49.3 having been triggered. Throughout France, tens of thousands poured into the streets on Thursday evening, defying riot police, as protesters took to lighting up the garbage that had accumulated over the past weeks as a result of striking refuse collectors.

Speaking on Thursday evening, the heads of the country’s eight main trade unions called on their members to protest over the weekend of 18 and 19 March and for “another big day of strikes and protests” on Thursday 23 March. While moderate unions had vowed to respect the vote at the National Assembly if the bill had passed on Thursday, the government’s move to bypass parliament appears to have galvanised strikers into unity.

As the country braces for no confidence vote and France’s lower chamber is further put to the test, the spotlight is now firmly on trade unions. In fact, many in France had begun to favour them over parliamentary representatives in recent weeks as the debate over pension reform descended into insults and lies. Among the debate’s low points, opposition MPs have called the labour minister, Olivier Dussopt, “assassin” and posted images of themselves stamping on his photograph, while the government has inflated the figure of the minimum pension income citizens would receive under the law.

By contrast, French trade unions have proved themselves to be organised and resolute, yet nonviolent. They have also shown unity for the first time since their opposition to proposed pension reforms in 2010. This is a sign of democratic and political vitality, the fragility of which should not be underestimated. However, what will remain of trade union unity once the reform is passed, or on the contrary abandoned? And above all, can trade unions be decisive players in the long term without stronger roots in the places where it represents workers most closely?

From the street to companies

Although protests are organised by trade unions, there is no automatic relationship between industrial action on the “street” and that which unfolds in the workplace.

The rate of union membership in France is low, and in half a century, the presence of unions on the ground has generally declined. While France made unions compulsory within companies of 50 employees or more in 1968, this has failed to translate into stronger organisations in the workplace.

The most effective strikes are being played out across a few strategic sectors, most notably public transport. Until now, the main site of protest has been the street rather than the workplace. However, the demographic of the protesters is not the same as that of the strikers, or even workers. During the protests, entire families have been seen marching and shop owners often lower metal curtains in solidarity with the protests.

Transport workers hold a banner reading 'TGV Paris Sud-Est workshop on strike' during a demonstration called by French trade unions in front of Paris's Gare de Lyon railway station, 19 January, 2023
Transport workers strike against proposed pension reform at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, on 19 January 2023. Stéphane De Sakutin/AFP

The return of the “strike by proxy”?

From November to December 1995, France saw massive demonstrations against the Juppé reforms – an austerity package known by the name of the then prime minister, Alain Juppé. During this period, the notion of “strike by proxy” appeared. Even though the number of strikers wasn’t particularly high, the public felt affinity for those on strike and gave its blessing to action that gridlocked the country’s infrastructure. But times have changed.

Questions of mobility is perceived by some as less important, especially because of telecommuting, while for others it is a vital issue, especially in areas outside of major city centres, when jobs, schools, hospitals, other public services, or even shops require travel by car. Targeting it can alienate those who must travel or aspire to do so, even if it’s only for leisure. Philippe Martinez has understood this well and accepted the railway unions’ choice to withdraw a strike called in early March when people set off on holiday.

Rubbish piles up in strike-bound Paris (France 24).

Laurent Berger, the national secretary of the France’s second largest trade-union, the CFDT, confirmed that opposition to the reform have boosted the organisation’s membership. While this is not negligible, a fundamental problem remains: can trade unionism put itself forward as the main representative of discontent – “the street” – without serving as a conduit for the demands that rise up from the shop floor and in the office, and bringing bargaining power at the local, company, branch, and possibly national and interprofessional level?

Toward a new trade union spirit in companies?

There certainly needs to be a new breath of fresh air, like the one provided by the current protests, but visible internally, in companies and administrations or at school. We also need measures that are favourable to it. However, President Macron has always shown great reservations, even contempt, toward trade unionism, including reformist ones like the CFDT.

By portraying himself as the heir of Isaac René Le Chapelier, a jury of the revolutionary period who prohibited guilds and trade unions in 1791, the president will certainly not help to revitalise trade union action from the bottom up.

Time and again, Macron has referred to “corporatism” - a political ideology whereby professional bodies seek to exclusively defend their interests - as “the French disease, the thing that reappeared the quickest following the 1789 Revolution”. In February, the Labour Minister Dussopt has employed similar language in the National Assembly:

“We were elected to rid the French of corporatism, to make society more fluid, to drain the rents […] There is a great deal of conservatism on the part of the social partners”.

As for the big employers, they have in no way conveyed any openness to compromise during the current conflict. Standing by reforms that do not require any particular effort from them, they have missed their chance to reinvent social dialogue at company level.

The unions can emerge stronger from the January-February 2023 protests. Indeed, trade unionism has once again proved itself as a political force, but beyond the confines of parliament. It is the rediscovered pride of the people of the left, but outside the political parties, and it is not serious to consider transforming Laurent Berger into a future candidate for the presidency of the Republic.

Whatever the outcome of the current strikes, the next stage is already taking shape: forcing the government to recognise what work represents today, renounce its top-down way of exercising authority, and learn to accept and even encourage the role of trade unions in mediation, be it within companies, public administration, the national education or health sectors.

This article was originally published in French

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