The Paradox of French Labour
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Due to dwindling membership and internal divisions, the decline of French trade unions long seemed inevitable. Against this backdrop, the unity demonstrated by the so-called intersydicale since the beginning of the massive protests against the pension reform, as well as internal renewal processes are historic in many respects. Is tradeunionism in France experiencing a renaissance?
For the first time in decades, this year’s May Day celebrations brought all of France’s trade union confederations together in a major joint demonstration. After 12 weeks of demonstrations involving somewhere between 1 and 3 million people throughout the country, the coalition of trade unions that emerged to oppose President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans is continuing to maintain pressure on the government. In fact, although the law aimed at raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 was ultimately adopted, workers’ organizations appear to be the major winners of this series of rallies.
Driven mainly by the country’s two main labour confederations, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), the social movement mobilization of recent months has given an unexpected boost to trade unionism in France. Most opinion polls show strong public support, which is confirmed by record membership growth since the beginning of the year. Yet, although the coalition appears to be a leading social force, capable of mobilizing millions of French workers several weeks in a row, it conceals a much different political reality, making France’s labour movement a real political and social paradox.
The Forward March of French Labour Halted
France was witnessed a number of major conflicts throughout its history — the 1936 general strike, liberation from German fascism, May 1968, the 1995 strike wave — that helped to secure significant social gains such as paid leave, the right to collective bargaining, social security, and shorter working hours.
However, organized labour in the country has never occupied a particularly dominant position in industrial relations. While the CGT, for example, experienced membership peaks in 1936, 1945, and 1968, France has always been characterized by much lower unionization levels than other Western European countries. After reaching nearly 30 percent of the population at the end of World War II, unionization has fallen almost constantly since then, before literally collapsing since the 1980s. With just over 10 percent membership today — 18.4 percent in the public sector and 7.8 percent in the private sector — France has the lowest trade union membership rate in Europe, a far cry from Scandinavia or Belgium, but also from countries in the south of the continent.
These differences can be explained by organized labour’s differing approach: trade unionism in France is based mainly on militant, volunteer engagement, similar to a community-based or political approach, unlike countries where membership is driven by trade unions’ exclusive management of membership benefits such as unemployment insurance. Nevertheless, the dramatic decline of trade unionism in France lies primarily in the expansion of the service sector, leading to the disappearance of most bastions of industrial workers.
Similarly, the parallel emergence of mass unemployment and numerous atypical jobs has considerably weakened unions’ membership levels and their political room for manoeuvre. Trade unions in France are struggling to adapt to a world of work that is now highly fragmented, remaining rooted in the public sector or companies with more than 50 employees.
Finally, trade unionists find themselves on the losing end of a profound revision of their responsibilities and areas of intervention. Since the early 2000s, numerous reforms have weakened negotiations at the sectoral and branch levels in favour of company-wide agreements. Since 2018, the merger of France’s main employee representative bodies into a single body — the Social and Economic Council (CSE) — has led to extensive bureaucratization of union work. Employee representatives appear increasingly isolated and overwhelmed, forced to negotiate agreements that have little at stake or are socially regressive.
A House Divided
In such an environment, it is difficult for trade unions to effectively oppose the socially regressive policies pursued by successive governments over the past 40 years. Indeed, the rare union victories at the national level, such as against Alain Juppé’s pension reforms in 1995 or the planned labour market deregulation in 2006, were mere drops in a sea of defeats.
Faced with a political sphere that has largely been won over to the logic of the market, French trade union confederations are no longer able to put a stop to labour market flexibility measures, the erosion of social and employment protections, or successive increases in the retirement age. Despite regular demonstrations leading entire sectors such as education, transport, or energy to strike, and hundreds of thousands of people on the streets as in 2003 or 2010, each time against planned pension reforms, unions have been unable to stop the legislative process. Even more serious: in the autumn of 2018, the gilets jaunes or yellow vest movement completely circumvented and overtook them, quickly getting their way and nearly 13 billion euro in bonuses from the government of Edouard Philippe.
Although these failures can be explained by an often inflexible government, resorting both to constitutional mechanisms — for example by using Article 49.3 to impose a law without a vote by the National Assembly — and police clampdowns, they also stem from a trade union sector characterized by deep divisions between factions. The two main confederations, CGT and CFDT, have a turbulent relationship that tends, at best, to keep them far removed from each other and, at worst, to involve them in internal conflict, exacerbated in 2008 by new rules making elections for employee representatives a strategic issue for such organizations.
The CGT has long been dominated by the French Communist Party (PCF). Although it now claims strict independence from any political grouping, it maintains a combative view of labour relations, which is characterized by noticeable strike activity, particularly in certain sectors where a “classist” tradition persists, such as dockers, refinery workers, railway workers, or the energy sector. A secularized offshoot of the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), the CFDT has long presented itself as the torchbearer of self-governing socialism, before adopting a strategy focused on negotiations with employers and the state in the late 1970s. This position led the confederation to sign controversial agreements, triggering sometimes deep internal conflicts, but above all lasting rivalries with the CGT.
The Shock of Unity
Since the 1990s, however, at least some labour leaders have attempted to overcome these conflicts. Some, such as Louis Viannet and later Bernard Thibault, both general secretaries of the CGT from 1992 to 2013, advocated for “a united trade unionism”, seeking to maximize unity in struggles with other trade unions.
In 2010, a previous plan to increase the retirement age had already led to the creation of a broad coalition of trade unions, bringing several hundred thousand people together in the streets over several months. The elections of François Hollande and later Emmanuel Macron rekindled divisions, with the CFDT once again appearing to be the preferred point of contact for employers and the government. Negotiations over the Labour Law in 2016, aimed at making the French Labour Code more flexible, subsequently became a point of crystallization between the “protest” and “reformist” trade unions. The CFDT did not oppose a new planned pension reform in 2019, which nevertheless led to major demonstrations before ultimately being abandoned, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
The exceptional nature of this year’s social mobilization is therefore evident. It has been exceptional in its scale and duration as well as in its strategic orientation: unity is constantly emphasized by all trade union leaders, pushing the question of strikes, especially rolling strikes, into the background. The stated objective is ultimately less about bringing the economy to a standstill — which the trade unions doubt they are capable of, particularly due to inflation — than winning over popular opinion.
While certain sectors decided to stop work and picket their sites — such as refinery workers, dockers, or refuse collectors — the timid call to “bring France to a halt” issued on 7 March points to the reluctance of the trade union coalition to launch the movement into a wide-ranging rolling strike. In fact, certain sectors that are generally at the forefront of strikes, such as transport, are struggling to mobilize their membership.
Conversely, the unified strategy has been an undeniable success: in addition to the millions of people on the streets over 12 weeks, opinion polls show a massive rejection of the law — 93 percent of the working population – and, in a new development, majority popular support for the role of trade unions in French society. The significant mobilization in a multitude of small and medium-sized towns throughout the country has strengthened the popular base for trade unionism, dispelling criticisms that emerged during the yellow vest protests that the trade unions were alienated from communities.
Overcoming the French Paradox
On 14 April, France’s Constitutional Council approved Macron’s pension reform, offering a legal, although not political victory to the government headed up by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. Although the call for weekly demonstrations seems to be over, protests against the reform have continued since.
Now, government representatives are challenged wherever they go by blockades, booing, or the loud banging of saucepans. Emmanuel Macron’s popularity rating has collapsed, returning to the levels of the yellow vest crisis. Activist organizations such as ATTAC are already calling for disruptions to the upcoming Olympic Games, scheduled to take place in Paris in the summer of 2024.
While the government as a whole has been eager to “turn the page”, the two main trade unions were undergoing a significant change in their leadership at the same time, which could have significant repercussions on the continuation of the social movement and, beyond that, on the democratic crisis in which France has become embroiled during this reform.
At the end of a contentious conference held in late March in Clermont-Ferrand, the CGT appointed a woman as general secretary for the first time in its history. Known for her activism around on labour, feminism, and inequality, Sophie Binet immediately expressed her determination to fight the pension reform, aligning herself with the positions of the trade union coalition that made withdrawing the law an essential prerequisite for any discussion with the government. Keen to establish her legitimacy within her organization, she has expressed her support for various sectors involved in struggles, in particular those that were most critical of her predecessor.
At the same time, Laurent Berger, general secretary of the CFDT, announced that he would hand over the reins to Marylise Léon, the deputy secretary of the confederation. His successor shares a seemingly similar profile to Sophie Binet: a 40-something woman, she was a manager in a consulting firm for many years before joining the Chemistry and Energy Federation, where she covered issues relating to industrial risks. Within the CFDT executive, which she joined in 2018, she was in charge of coordinating industrial relations policies, which led her to develop links with civil society organizations as well as, above all, trade unions.
We can thus expect this reconfiguration at the top of the two largest trade union confederations in France, which together represent more than 1,200,000 members across the country, to also have political repercussions. Faced with a government and president steeped in managerial authoritarianism, it is reasonable to believe that the links forged between unions during this pension battle will favourably pave the way for future joint struggles. We can also hope that this generational renewal incorporates a better understanding of new trade union issues related to precariousness, gender inequality, gender violence, and environmental issues.
Nevertheless, it would be naive to forget both the structural deficiencies and fundamental differences that characterize these two organizations. The merger of the employee representative bodies has considerably weakened trade union structures in France, the effects of which are beginning to be seen. Moreover, it would be wrong to believe that the CFDT has drawn a line under its desire to serve as a privileged intermediary for political and economic power. Similarly, the most recent CGT congress saw the re-emergence of currents emphasizing a discourse of rupture and confrontation with the capitalist order. Indeed, many political differences between the two confederations persist, starting with the pensions issue. Against this backdrop, it would seem difficult to repeat ad infinitum the unified success of the ongoing mobilization.
Finally, the joint rejection by all trade unions of a possible rapprochement with the political class seems to dim any prospects of a substantial improvement in both the situation of labour and trade unionism in France. The unified strategy has, however, been deeply “legitimist” by scrupulously respecting all the institutional stages of the law’s preparation. By not creating opportunities with political allies while respecting the rules of the parliamentary game, all trade unions are presented with yet another paradox that will have to be overcome.
Maxime Quijoux is a sociologist, political scientist and research fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). His research focuses on workers' struggles, trade unionism and democratic representation structures in companies.
- Le Paradoxe du Syndicalisme Français Maxime Quijoux