The jilted ally behind Macron’s pensions crisis

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If French president Emmanuel Macron is serious about ending the crisis he sparked by ramming through unpopular pension reforms, there is one person he should have on speed dial: union leader Laurent Berger.

The 54-year old, soft-spoken Berger heads the CFDT, the country’s biggest union and also its most reform-minded. Unlike hardline unions or the radical anti-capitalist fringe, Berger holds a more nuanced position that France does need to fix its costly and complex pensions system.

The pair have known each other since 2012 when Macron was a young staffer on François Hollande’s presidential campaign. They still address each other with the familiar tu in conversation, usually a breach of protocol when speaking to a president. But the relationship has gone into a deep freeze in recent years, according to people who know them, which is now making building bridges difficult.

As unions hold another nationwide protest on Tuesday, the Elysée may do well to recall an old maxim in French politics: no president can reform the pensions system without the help of the CFDT.

In the past 30 years, it has become a rite of passage for French presidents to propose change and face a backlash on the streets. But Macron’s predecessors all pushed reforms through — François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, and to a more limited extent Jacques Chirac — either with CFDT support or by trying to ensure that the union would not be in a position of outright hostility.

In fact, Berger’s CFDT helped conceive and supported Macron’s last, more ambitious attempt at reform in 2019, which was abandoned because of Covid-19. To make the system fairer, it proposed moving from 42 regimes to one points-based system.

Laurent Berger, centre, takes part in demonstrations after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote © Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

But Berger has been staunchly opposed to the president’s second attempt — a simpler, yet harsher plan aimed at repairing the system’s finances by raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and requiring people to work 43 years instead of 41 for a full pension.

“Nothing today justifies using this approach, which is the most unfair and the most brutal,” he said in an interview, pointing to issues for workers with physically demanding jobs and those who start young. “The finances of the system are not gravely in danger right now,” he added, although demographics will challenge the pay-as-you-go system in the coming decades.

Since January, Berger has also been the adult in the room in the so-called inter-syndicale — the group of eight national unions working together to oppose Macron’s pensions reform. He argued against a general strike and called instead for a series of fortnightly mass demonstrations. Those protests were peaceful and attracted millions of people.

Berger also warned the government earlier this month that using the 49.3 clause to pass the pensions draft law without a vote would be “dangerous” and risked inflaming protests. That is exactly what has happened since Macron’s decision to use the clause to override lawmakers earlier this month, triggering a wave of more violent and unpredictable protests.

Long suspicious of labour unions he sees as resistant to change and unrepresentative, Macron may have thought he could ignore Berger and just muscle through his reforms. That bet has not paid off.

It is a reminder of what some labour experts call “the French paradox”. Although France has among the lowest percentage of union members in the OECD — 11 per cent of employees versus 34 per cent in Italy, 23 per cent in the UK, or 17 in Germany — its unions still punch above their weight. What they negotiate with employers applies to everyone. Over 98 per cent of workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement — the highest in the OECD and compared to 28 per cent in the UK and 58 per cent in Germany.

So both in offices and factories, the unions still matter even if their membership has slowly declined since the 1980s. They also still have the ability to bring out the masses to the streets in a peaceful manner. “We have the power to mobilise a lot of people, but we have too few members,” admits Berger.

Over the weekend, one of Macron’s top lieutenants in the Elysée palace called Berger to “take the temperature” and discuss some ways out of the crisis. A day after fiery protests, Berger had floated the idea that Macron put the reform “on pause” for six months to allow for negotiation.

Although Macron thanked Berger for his “spirit of responsibility”, he quickly rejected that idea, insisting he would only meet the unions on other separate reforms to improve the world of work. For now, the president and Berger are still talking past each other.

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