Macron’s woes: French unions are gearing up for major strikes

Out in force. EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

Emmanuel Macron’s honeymoon period as French president is over. Five months into office and summer has seen his popularity slide. Nonetheless, the new leader is on the move with his commitment to reform France’s strict labour laws. His government has announced 36 measures in five separate decrees to give French companies more power over worker pay, hours, hiring and firing.

Macron was elected on a pro-business platform that vowed to tackle France’s persistently high unemployment rate (10.1%, compared with 4.8% in the UK and 4.1% in Germany), make the country more competitive and, thereby, attract foreign investment. Overhauling the country’s complex labour code has been seen as central to achieving this. But successive French governments have tried and failed to do so. The reason: strong union opposition.

Macron also on the march. EPA-EFE/Pantelis Saitas

With unions so far unimpressed with the content of his reforms, and two national mobilisations already planned for September, it looks like Macron might have a long and arduous task ahead of him.

Once-ambitious proposals by Macron’s predecessors have all been watered down because of union mobilisation. French unions can still strike with crippling effect, as demonstrated in 2016 when unions brought the country to a standstill over unpopular labour law reforms introduced by Macron’s predecessor. Even before the union consultations had finished, the left-wing CGT union declared its intention to protest on September 12, while the others opted to wait until the details were announced.

The proposed reforms

Macron is attempting to bring France closer to Scandinavian-style “flexi-security”. The long-term goal is to tackle unemployment by improving unemployment insurance plans and worker training programmes. The idea is that this protects workers rather than their jobs. But the short-term measures are aimed at giving businesses more flexibility in dealing with employees in several key areas.

First, Macron aims to make France’s rigid employee dismissal rules more flexible by reducing severance costs and loosening the country’s onerous legal procedures around dismissal. The second area where businesses will be allowed more freedom is working-time regulation, albeit without completely forsaking France’s current 35-hour week.

By making it easier for employers to dismiss workers and to adjust their schedules to match business needs, Macron believes it will also make it easier to hire workers on permanent contracts. Plans to allow employers to approve company-level agreements by workplace referendum instead of traditional collective bargaining arrangements have proved most contentious among the unions, as this is perceived as undermining their influence.

Union rivalries and responses

Deep inter-union divisions and rivalries have historically driven some unions towards greater militancy in a bid to win members. The major French unions are deeply divided along political, religious and ideological lines. Unlike unionism in other European countries, which is based on representing workers within a particular trade or industry, French unions have a greater sense of class consciousness and are driven by the need to promote the long-term interests of workers across the board.

Despite their differences, France’s big unions also rally together to fight labour reforms. EPA/Ian Langsdon

Emerging from the workers’ movement in 1895, the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) union has traditionally been perceived as the most militant, although it is no longer as close to its political ally, France’s communist party. The CGT’s historical rivals include the French Confederation of Christian Workers (or CFTC), established in 1919 as a Christian alternative to the radical CGT, and the anti-communist Workers’ Force (or FO), which broke away from the CGT in 1948 because of its pro-Soviet stance during the Cold War. Now, the CGT’s main rival is the moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), which became the country’s largest union in March 2017.

Competition for the same membership demographic has led to a pattern of militant one-upmanship between them. Often, the CGT’s aggressive militancy sparks conflicts that the others feel obliged to join, afraid of appearing weak to their membership base. In the past, this tactic has proved successful in defeating controversial reforms. For instance, the wave of CGT-led strike action and street protests that essentially immobilised the country for several weeks in 1995 ended with the defeat of then-prime minister Alain Juppé’s pension reforms.

Calm before the storm

Because of this history, Macron has decided to reform by decree rather than initiate the lengthy parliamentary process (though the specific new rules must still be approved by the French parliament before they become law). He perceives this shorter process to be a means of limiting the time frame for unions to protest. But reforming by decree does not automatically bypass unions.

Throughout the consultation process, Macron hoped to capitalise on existing divisions between the unions by offering the more amenable CFTC and CFDT the opportunity to influence the reforms’ contents in exchange for cooperation. To some extent he has succeeded. The CFDT has expressed disappointment with the reforms but will not be joining the CGT’s call to action on September 12. And, despite historically being more in tune with the CGT, FO has also decided not to participate in the September 12 strike. The CGT will, however, be joined by the smaller far-left Solidaires union.

Plus, more protest is planned on September 23 by the left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed movement. If these groups elicit sufficiently high levels of participation, it is plausible that the CFDT and FO may feel pressured into joining. This could be the calm before the storm.