French union leader takes aim at Hollande

CGT secretary-general Philippe Martinez takes part in a protest in Rennes against the government’s labour market reforms © AFP

A year ago, Philippe Martinez took the helm of an unpopular trade union haemorrhaging members and weakened by internal rivalries. But as he ramps up protests against the government’s jobs reform, the mustachioed boss of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) is betting that it will be President François Hollande, rather than him, who will take the blame for bringing France to a halt.

The 55-year-old CGT secretary-general is demanding the president withdraw a law intended to introduce more flexibility into the jobs market, which the Socialist leader forced through parliament without a vote. Mr Martinez has stepped up protests, disrupting fuel and power supplies in the worst confrontation between unions and the government since 2010, when centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the pension age.

At stake is a reform that would give companies more power to negotiate deals on overtime with their employees, allowing them to better adjust to economic downturns or sudden increases in demand. But the CGT opposes what it views as an attempt to undermine the power of the unions and sectoral collective bargaining.

With presidential elections in less than a year, the union also hopes to tap into widespread discontent among a socialist electorate that feels betrayed by the president’s midterm pro-business shift.

“Did Mr Hollande in his programme as presidential candidate say that he would attack the labour rules? If I remember well, he said he would attack finance,” Mr Martinez told RTL radio earlier this week. “The people who are angry at him today are those who voted for him in 2012.”

Manuel Valls, the prime minister, has vowed to press on with the reform, blaming the union for taking France and its economy “hostage” and pointed out that other, more reformist unions, such as the CFDT, backed the reforms.

“It’s the fault of a minority union that wants to impose its law,” the prime minister said on Thursday. “We must not budge, we must hold on.”

To the question, ‘who is to blame for the deadlock’, the French, so far, are answering ‘the government.’ That doesn’t mean they are praising the CGT. It just means the government is even more unpopular than the CGT

Like most French unions, the 121-year-old CGT has seen its influence dwindle since the 1970s, when postwar France experienced its first economic downturns and unemployment started to swell. Only about 8 per cent of French workers — about 2m — belong to unions. The leftwing CGT has been torn apart by internal divisions between hardliners and reformists, costing it support, whereas the CFDT, a more reformist, less confrontational union, has grown in strength.

Last year, Mr Martinez succeeded CGT leader Thierry Lepaon, who was forced to step down after revelations that the union had spent up to €150,000 to refurbish his flat. A former Communist party member who worked as a technician at Renault’s Billancourt plant near Paris, Mr Martinez may have seized on the labour law to reassert his legitimacy with his base and unify the factions within the CGT, according to René Mouriaux, a professor and author of several books on French unions.

Yet the CGT’s influence has not vanished: The union attracted the most votes from employees — unionised or not — in the latest elections to designate worker representatives.

“Unions are weak, but so are political parties if you look at memberships,” Mr Mouriaux said. “The CGT is still a big force. It can get a good sense of the social climate. It is the base that’s pushing Mr Martinez now.”

The strikes are a reminder of the disruptive power of the leftwing union. After a week of strike action, production at France’s eight oil refineries have been disrupted and a quarter of the country’s 12,000 fuel stations have suffered shortages, forcing the government to tap strategic reserves for the first time in six years. Roads have been blockaded, flights and rail services have been reduced and nuclear power production has slowed. On Thursday, tens of thousands of protesters joined marches in Paris and other French cities.

For all the disruption, Mr Martinez’s message seems to have struck a chord: six out 10 French people supported the strikes, an IFOP poll released on Thursday suggested. A majority are suspicious of the reform, that also includes measures to facilitate redundancies, said Jerome Fourquet, a pollster at IFOP, which conducted the survey.

This puts the Socialist government in a bind. Mr Hollande, who is the least popular president in France’s postwar history, has so far shown no willingness to budge, but he may be tempted to compromise in an attempt to mend fences with part of his leftwing electorate to increase his chances of re-election next year, said Mr Fourquet.

“To the question, ‘Who is to blame for the deadlock,’ the French, so far, are answering ‘The government,’” Mr Fourquet said. “That doesn’t mean they are praising the CGT. It just means the government is even more unpopular than the CGT.”

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