News / European Perspective on Labor Relations

May 2023

European Perspective on Labor Relations

Region: Transatlantic Perspectives: Europe

Author: Mathilde Defarges

Not just a hindrance: Macron needs to engage with unions

With his divisive pension reform moving slowly into the rearview mirror, French president Emmanuel Macron has committed to rebuilding trust with the electorate in the run-up to the summer. However, the reform has severely frayed relations with several key constituencies that the government seems ill-equipped to bring back into the fold. One such constituency is unions, organizations with a history that goes back over a century and who have now been durably alienated by Macron’s policies. While the French leader has long seen unions as more of a hindrance than a help, his sustained neglect of a small but politically very active segment of the workforce is fueling the already widely held perception that the government is out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns and feeding populist forces.

Unions in France

Freedom to unionize was first enshrined in French law in 1884. This right was carried over into the preamble of the 1946 French constitution which states that “every man may defend his rights and interests through trade union action and join the trade union of his choice”. It was reaffirmed by the Constitutional Council in 1971. The right is very broad, with any employee of any company, irrespective of status or veterancy, able to create or join a union without consulting with their employer.

France currently recognizes five “representative” unions. Owing to the relative size of their memberships, these organizations can negotiate collective agreements in every sector of the economy. In addition to these five main organizations, several smaller “autonomous” unions exist at the sub-national or local level. The CFDT and CGT alone account for more than half the weight of the five representative unions. Political observers usually view the CFDT as more pragmatic, while the firebrand CGT is traditionally more uncompromising.

Nevertheless, French unions suffer from two key weaknesses. Firstly, unionization rates are extraordinarily low in France. Only about ten percent of French workers are in a union and that number drops to eight percent in the private sector. That makes France amongst the least unionized countries of the OECD and the least unionized country of the European Union. Secondly, the landscape of French unions is highly fragmented and has historically been riddled with internal divisions. This makes bringing all unions to defend a joint position difficult and such joint positions exceedingly rare.

Macron and unions

Prior to his election at the head of the French state, Macron spent two years as former President François Hollande’s Economy Minister. In this role, he played a key role in shepherding a deeply unpopular reform of French labor law. At the time, his interactions with unions were already conflictual and he compromised with them out of necessity, without seeking to build a longer-term trust-based relationship. During his first presidential campaign, Macron pleaded for a “deep reshuffle” of the role of “social partners who do far more politics than social dialogue”.

This history partly explains why, in 2017, newly elected president Macron saw unions as a redundant legacy that stood in the way of his reformist agenda. He considered that unions’ role should be limited to workplace dialogue and wanted them to stay out of politics. The first major initiative of his presidential mandate, another labor law reform, went through uncontested but immediately alienated unions with its plans to, in time, get rid of tens of thousands of workers’ representatives in French companies.

Rising tensions came to a head in 2019 when Macron’s government first tried to push through a pension reform. Unions rapidly mobilized against the measure, leading to large strikes supported by a majority of the opinion. In addition, the Yellow Vests protests that erupted all over France starting in late 2018 showed the importance of intermediary bodies to the president. Despite this realization, Macron’s government turned down the compromising CFDT’s offer to help mediate the crises.

The pension turning point

In early 2020, social unrest simmered down as Covid took the wind out of the protesters’ sails and forced the government to delay its reform. In the second round of the 2022 presidential election, unions including the hard-left CGT called on voters to cast their vote for Macron over Le Pen. In a rare show of goodwill, the president took a moment to personally thank the leader of the firebrand organization.

However, all hopes for an appeased relation between the executive and unions were dashed in 2023. The government’s persistent and ultimately successful attempts to pass its unpopular pension reform managed to create a unions coalition that hadn’t been seen in almost thirty years. After months of protests supported by a majority of the population, the final decision to force the measure through Parliament without a vote led even the usually measured leader of the CFDT to warn that France faced a “serious democratic crisis”.

Macron has since tried to turn the page and to foster divisions between uncharacteristically united organizations, so far to no avail. Social discontent remains at an exceptionally high level, with no real signs of abating. In fact, unions’ frontline role in fighting Macron’s unpopular reform have netted them tens of thousands of new members, a phenomenon amplified by new faces at the head of the CGT and CFDT.

Ongoing changes of leadership at the two main French unions offer little solace to the president. Ahead of a series of meetings with the French Prime Minister that started on May 17, new head of the CGT Sophie Binet warned that “going back to normal” was out of the question unless the government abandoned the controversial reform. Initial reporting on the meetings suggest that they are only preliminary and that the entire process will take time before yielding results. At the more compromising CFDT, the incoming head Marylise Léon has been the current leader’s number two for years and has already gone on the record to warn about the “dangers” of the pension reform’s “precipitated enactment”.


The current, exceptionally high, level of tensions between Emmanuel Macron and French unions goes back years. However, the French leader’s persistent unwillingness to engage and compromise with imperfect but unavoidable social partners is particularly problematic given the unprecedented discontent that his unpopular pension reform has generated. Absent such dialogue, and with Macron having bypassed Parliament and ignored massive protests supported by most of the population, a growing number of French voters feels disillusioned with their ability to have their voices heard. Such disillusionment only benefits populist parties and is dangerous for French democracy.

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