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Martinez takes France's CGT union into battle against the government

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By Robert Hackwill
Martinez takes France's CGT union into battle against the government

Another day of intense strike action has hit France, the ninth in the current series of confrontations with the government over new labour laws.

The movement shows no sign of weakening, and in fact appears to be stiffening its resolve. The trades unions involved, led by the CGT, appear to have decided to go for broke until the law is scrapped. What are the solutions, and what are the consequences?
In a moment we will ask our guest, but first of all let’s hear what the unions and leader, who is defying the government, have to say.

Martinez, the man for the hour?

It is far from the first and most certainly will not be the last period of social unrest in France, but the last few weeks have seen some of the most important street protests in more than two decades.

The French have taken to the streets and the country is slowly grinding to a halt as several trades unions co-operate with industrial action to protest against labour market reforms.

In a few weeks the Communist CGT union leader Philippe Martinez, 55 years old, who has been leader of the country’s largest union for the last 15 months, has become a key political player.

Previously unknown to the public he has become the point of the spear for the French left that feels betrayed by the current Socialist government, and has no intention of letting it off the hook. He is committed to fighting the prime minister and president, and both Manuel Valls and François Hollande say they will not give in.

“When people are protesting so much, when so many people reject a new law then it should be withdrawn and legislators should start rewriting it, and discuss it. Common sense should win the day. The ball is in the government’s court. If they tell us ‘We’ll start again from zero’, the strikes will stop immediately, I guarantee it,” says Martinez.

The CGT can mobilise many people and represents a serious nuisance for the government. It has dominant positions in key economic sectors like transport, petrol, and chemical products, and if it decides to dig its heels in, it can cause some serious problems.

The CGT has 688,000 members, more than any political party, but only representing 2,6% of the salaried workforce. France has no tradition of mass union membership, and only 8% of the workforce pay union dues, compared to 55% in Belgium or 82% in Iceland.

But the French paradox is that despite this feeble union membership, millions of French people are often happy to follow the unions’ lead, support strike action, and demonstrate.

Could Philippe Martinez, in the opinion of some French leader writers, be about to bring France to its knees? Is he prepared to go to the brink?

“Martinez and the CGT have succeeded with this mobilisation, but after it has to be stopped and the ship turned around, and a new course plotted. That’s very complicated, and it is at this moment we’ll find out just how talented Martinez is,” says industrial relations specialist at IRES, Jean-Marie Pernot.

Whatever happens next Martinez has already managed to push this most unpopular of French president’s back to the wall. If the CGT crumbles its remaining credibility will crumble, too. If it does not give in, the French will blame the CGT for the stalemate and paralysis.

Rip it up and start again says economist

Sophie Desjardin, euronews:
“Henri Sterdyniak is an economist and member of Les Economists Attérés, a collective that challenges economic dogma. To begin with, how do you see this industrial dispute ending?”

Henri Sterdyniak:
“It’s very difficult to say. Ideally, the government should go away and rewrite the labour laws and renegotiate the whole package with the unions. The reforms concern union members first and foremost, and the risk is that the government is too stubborn and rams the law through parliament without discussion.”

“The argument seems to revolve around Article two which overturns several longstanding principles, in favour of the employer. Can you explain to us in a few words why this is so important?”

Henri Sterdyniak:
“Negotiations at a company level can now take place outside national, sectorial agreements, so many unionists and workers fear that companies will take advantage of this and from a position of power impose rules that will hurt the workforce.

For example, a company could say ‘We need to improve our competitivity, and we need workers to be more flexible’. So wages are cut, or hours lengthened, or employment contracts are modified without negotiating with the unions.”

“One of the criticisms about France’s workplace laws is that there are too many of them, and are so complex that they are in part responsible for the high unemployment rate. Is this the case?”

Henri Sterdyniak:
“We do have workplace laws that have become too complicated, for sure. Many of the rules are out of date so there needs to be a lot of simplification. This could have been negotiated with the unions, but the problem is that the government didn’t do that, it drew up reforms that were more tailor-made for employers than workers.

Allowing company-level agreements will create complications rather than simplify things, because we will end up with a host of company agreements.”

“Have reforms like these worked in other EU countries?”

Henri Sterdyniak:
“That’s a big debate. Some say Spain or Italy should be taken as an example, as they have enacted deep reforms of the labour laws, but they also have at the same time very high unemployment, so that’s not a pleasant prospect. In Britain work is more flexible, but at the same time more salaried workers are in poverty. The ideal model is hard to find.”

“Do the austerity policies driven by the EU’s stability pact mean that time is up for generous welfare states like France?”

Henri Sterdyniak:
“Yes. Europe’s rightwing politicians and employers are definitely heading that way. They believe that with the constraints imposed by globalisation and taking into account European construction, France will gradually have to line up with the other member states, lower benefits, and be more like a certain number of other countries. France needs to find European allies among the trades unions to fight this dismantling of Europe’s social model.”