By Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) - The role of French trade unions is evolving away from leading mass strikes and street protests to partnering employers in the workplace -- whether they like it or not, France's labour minister Muriel Penicaud told Reuters.
Speaking as the hard-left CGT union prepared to lead the latest round of largely muted protests against the President Emmanuel Macron's business-friendly reform agenda, she said the strikes and clashes that once made France a hotbed of labour strife had become an exception.
"Even though it is important to have strong forms of expression, many workers don't think it's in that form," Penicaud, a former head of human resources at yoghurt maker Danone and software group Dassault Systemes, said in an interview.
"They can have their say better through staff representatives."
The CGT has struggled to get other unions behind the protests against an overhaul of France's labour laws aimed at spurring growth and cutting unemployment that Penicaud negotiated in 300 hours of talks with unions and employers.
The more moderate Force Ouvriere union only joined the CGT-led protest on Thursday after its leaders were criticised by some rank and file members for not taking a tougher stance.
The reform-friendly CFDT, which surpassed the CGT earlier this year as France's biggest private sector union, was notably absent from Thursday's protests, the fourth nationwide wave since Macron took office in May.
"Sometimes there's a big strike in a country and it's only talked about locally. In France, when there is a small strike, it gets talked about in the whole world because it fits the stereotype," Penicaud said.
She pointed to a steep fall in the number of days lost to strikes over the last decade as proof that the era of angry unionists manning street barricades is a thing of the past.
Barely four months after Macron took office, Penicaud rewrote France's hefty labour code to give companies more leeway to tailor working conditions to their needs.
While French unions struggle with low membership and declining political influence, more reform-minded unions have understood that they stand to gain, Penicaud said.
"There's a lot more that can be negotiated in companies and across sectors. Those (unions) that want to negotiate will have more things to negotiate and can use it to their advantage."
The government's bet is that greater flexibility on the shop floor will spur employers to take on more workers as it will also be easier to get rid of them if business turns sour.
Though firming economic growth has boosted job creation this year, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high as more people come onto the labour market and a subsidised jobs scheme is reduced.
The jobless rate ticked up to 9.7 percent of the workforce in the third quarter from 9.5 percent in the prior three months, data from the INSEE statistics agency showed on Thursday.
With the labour reform due to be ratified in parliament next week, Penicaud has already turned her attention to an overhaul of the professional training and jobless benefits systems.
Macron wants to better focus the more than 30 billion euros spent annually on training people who need it the most, while also extending unemployment insurance to entrepreneurs in the hope more people will be encouraged to start their own company.
Unions and employers currently manage both jointly. With how billions of euros are spent at stake, Penicaud said she aimed to repeat the success of the labour reform with marathon consultations with all sides.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas and Caroline Pailliez; Editing by Catherine Evans)