France’s new president is about to face off against some of the West's fiercest organized labor. At stake is the future of Europe.
- By George RossGeorge Ross is ad personam Jean Monnet chair at the University of Montreal.
France is currently marveling at the successes of President Emmanuel Macron. So it should. Relatively unknown not long ago, Macron’s centrist presidential campaign took off like wildfire, and shortly thereafter his brand-new “Republic on the Move” party dominated parliamentary elections. But the country would be wise to reserve judgment: Nobody yet knows whether Macron’s political virtuosity in elections will be transferrable to policymaking — and his next battle promises to be his most difficult to date.
At the center of Macron’s agenda is a vow to immediately focus on reforming France’s labor laws, not just to revitalize France but the listless European Union as well. He will no doubt seek to rally his voters behind him, but the depth of their commitment will be tested. Some of the country’s militant, risk-taking labor unions — which have managed to stymie major attempts at labor law reform in the past — may be bracing for a fight.
France’s labor laws were written mainly in the years of postwar reconstruction and rapid industrial growth and reflect both the country’s deep statism and firm beliefs that the age of manufacturing would be permanent. Their regulations touch on almost every aspect of French working life, from collective bargaining to working conditions and hours to vacations, contracts, and grievance procedures to which institutions can represent workers. They have fit less well in the post-industrial era. As long-term, well-protected jobs have declined and less secure service jobs have expanded, the labor market has become segmented between a diminishing number of workers with stable contracts and an expanding group in more precarious situations, a trend accentuated by lower growth and higher unemployment. Union membership has declined from nearly 30 percent of the workforce in the 1970s to 11 percent today — and much of that is concentrated in the public sector. Strikes, for which France was once notorious, have declined in parallel.
The labor code still stands, however, despite multiple efforts by Macron’s predecessors to reform it — a testament to the fact that, when they want to, French unions can still strike with paralyzing effect. Macron learned this during the most recent attempt at major labor reforms in 2015-2016, when he was finance minister under the François Hollande presidency, in which ambitious proposals were watered-down versions because of union mobilization.
Macron now seeks to bring France closer to a Scandinavian-style system of “flexi-security.” This will eventually include helping those out of work to transition between jobs less painfully through revamped unemployment insurance plans and more effective worker training programs: a gradual shift toward protecting workers rather than protecting jobs. But his initial measures are aimed at giving companies more flexibility in dealing with employees. Tough requirements for dismissing workers will be streamlined by capping severance costs and lightening legal procedures. Working-time regulations will be loosened, allowing much more flexible scheduling, albeit without completely abandoning France’s present 35-hour workweek. In theory, such changes, by making it easier to fire workers and to adjust their schedules to fit business needs, will also make it easier to hire them. The multiple institutions that currently represent workers — on shop floors, in labor tribunals, and in social programs — are also to be consolidated, probably into one. Most controversially, collective bargaining will be decentralized from the sectoral to firm level. These measures, depending upon their details, could weaken existing union confederations; they are unlikely to surrender gently. Also at play are the deep divisions and rivalries within French organized labor, which, historically, have tended to push some unions toward great militancy to gain the upper hand in the competition for members, funding, and bargaining power.
Chronic divisions among the major French union confederations have been around as long as French capitalism. During earlier postwar decades, the pro-communist CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) dominated but had to compete with the stodgy social Catholic CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens) and the anti-communist FO (Force Ouvrière). Each had its particular strongholds, but their rivalries were deeply motivated by Cold War politics: The CGT, a descendant of earlier anarcho-syndicalist movements, tended to pull out all the militant stops against anything it saw as pro-American. The FO, nurtured by American unions and intelligence services, resisted the CGT almost no matter what it did, while the CFTC drew its support from practicing Catholics and anti-communist, anti-class conflict church doctrine. These dynamics have shifted over the years: The CGT has remained rebellious, but its main rival is now the energetic, reformist CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail), which split from the CFTC in the mid-1960s; the FO, meanwhile, has slowly abandoned its visceral anti-communism.
Still, over the decades these divisions have fed patterns of conflict, in which unions often targeted their rivals as energetically as they did employers or the state. And in these interunion fights, the CGT’s aggressive militancy has proved an especially rewarding tactic; it tends to spark conflicts that other confederations, in turn, feel obliged to join. In the past, the CGT initiated crippling strikes in the public sector — on Parisian public transport and the railroads in particular — which have helped block change and, in some cases, had lasting political consequences. The strikes of 1995, in particular, stand out. After new President Jacques Chirac’s first prime minister, Alain Juppé, proposed sweeping changes to public pensions and the co-managed organization of other social policies, CGT troops shut down Paris and much of the rest of the country for several weeks. Juppé’s reforms were defeated, and Chirac’s party was crushed in legislative elections two years later; the 2015-2016 clashes were less spectacular but played out similarly.
Macron knows that this history could threaten his reform plans. To make it difficult for unions to protest, he has thus decided to reform by decrees (though the specific new rules will still eventually have to be approved by Parliament before they become law). Further, he wants to move immediately, to place unions at a disadvantage. Not much but vacationing happens over summer in France, and the French do not take kindly to strikes disrupting their holidays. Macron’s goal is to complete the reforms by the time citizens have resumed their post-vacation routines in late September. The procedure requires that France’s “social partners” — unions and employers — be “consulted,” so 48 consultation sessions have been scheduled until July 21. In these talks, Macron hopes further to divide the unions by seducing the more compliant CFDT, now slightly larger than the CGT, to cooperate in exchange for some influence over the reforms’ contents. The CFDT has already announced conditional willingness to accept decentralized bargaining but opposes new legal limits on penalties for abusive firing.
CGT and FO union leaders, by contrast, have made their skepticism clear during these initial consultations, though they have been at pains to maintain a respectful and polite tone with a popular president at the height of his post-victory honeymoon. The CGT’s tough general secretary, Philippe Martinez, has announced that “weakening the rights and protection of wage earners is … the equivalent of authorizing social dumping.” The FO leader has added that “social policies should not be adjustment variables tied to economic dogma.” Both are contemplating opposition but haven’t committed yet. What follows will depend on the reforms’ final details and on whether in a pro-Macron political climate they risk alienating too many citizens by mounting all-out resistance.
But should the CGT decide to pull the trigger, it could push for public sector strikes, particularly in transportation, to try to bring France to a halt. It can anticipate at least some public support for this. France remains France: The country’s militant, left-leaning, and protest-prone subculture still exists, ready to be stimulated by labor action. La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), a coalition of radical left-wing groups led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won just under 20 percent in the first round of the presidential election — about the same number that the now-eclipsed French Communist Party won in the 1970s — did reasonably well in the parliamentary vote and has talked of new resistance.
The stakes of this effort to change labor law are high, not just for France but for Europe as a whole. Reforming the country’s labor code is necessary, according to the new president, for new economic flexibility, greater economic growth, lower unemployment, and increased competitiveness. But it might be even more necessary for re-energizing the EU, Macron’s other urgent goal. Macron hopes to restore the Franco-German “engine” to soften Germany’s overdriven devotion to austerity, its opposition to a more federal eurozone “economic government” with a budget, finance minister, and parliament, and its rejection of new forms of European financial solidarity. But for France to re-establish its EU influence, Angela Merkel’s Germany will first have to be persuaded that Macron can succeed at his domestic reforms. Merkel and her team have long seen France as an ineffective, debt-prone, and politically and economically stalemated neighbor. Macron sees labor reform as a large first step toward changing this perception. On its cover, the French weekly Le Point recently worried that Macron’s initiatives could provoke “the mother of all battles” and that Macron might be “betting his presidential term.” But labor reform is at the very center of his plans, and he can hardly back off now.
Photo credit: FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/AFP/Getty Images