It’s been 50 years since the events of May 1968, when France went through a period of civil unrest, and one year since the election of centrist reformer Emmanuel Macron as president. The country is marking these anniversaries with a series of strikes, rallies, and occupations in response to Macron’s economic agenda. Students, workers, and retirees are protesting, targeting trains, airlines, retirement homes, universities, and government offices. The protests have already cost the CEO of Air France his job: He stepped down after workers rejected his proposal of a 7% wage increase over four years (unions want a 6% immediate increase). This is not particularly surprising for a country known for powerful unions and a strong attachment to social rights.
However, this time, things seem different.
In 1995 a train strike paralyzed France and forced the government to back down from its proposed reform of the railway sector. By contrast, the disruptions today, while sizable, are not comparable and the government does not appear ready to concede much to the protesters. The movement’s organizers claim a convergence des luttes (convergence of goals) among those who oppose the reform to open up the railway sector to competition, or the one to allow public universities to screen applicants more tightly, and those who want a wage increase or oppose the labor and tax reforms by Macron. But so far this rallying cry is failing to mobilize the masses or significantly disrupt the country.
Why not? For a start, despite the discontent in some sectors, the French economy is not doing too badly. GDP grew by 1.9% last year, unemployment is slowly decreasing, and public finances are improving faster than anticipated. Moreover, new technologies are helping cushion the effect of transport strikes by allowing people to work from home or share car rides. Finally, citizens — at least according to polls — remain supportive of the government’s effort to pass long-promised reforms. One year after Macron’s election, Le Monde writes that he “resists in opinion polls, despite fragilities.” With a month and a half left before the summer break, and already several days into the strike, the window for unions to mark a victory is closing. (Of course, never say never, as the surprising rejection of the agreement at Air France shows.)
A second reason the demonstrations are unlikely to thwart Macron’s reforms is that labor unions themselves are also changing. In 2017, just before Macron’s election, the left-leaning CGT lost its historical dominance and was bypassed in workers’ representatives elections by the CFDT, a more moderate and centrist labor union. Moreover, even if they are considered to be very strong, French unions are, in terms of membership, as weak as those in the United States. Only 11% of the employees in France are members of a union (as compared with 10% in the U.S., 15% in Australia, 26% in Canada, and 67% in Sweden), even less if one would focus only on the private sector.
What makes France’s unions different from the U.S. is that almost all workers are covered by an agreement at the sectoral level, setting wage floors and other basic rights. Thanks to the extension of private agreements to all workers and companies, labor unions are able to exert a much wider influence than their narrow membership would allow. In other words, though they don’t have many members, the deals they make apply to every worker in the industry. Nonetheless, their low membership is increasingly used to question the ability of the unions to speak on behalf of a large group of people or not just their narrow basis.
Although the recent strikes seem unlikely to force Macron to make major concessions, the French public is broadly sympathetic with the unions. Though managers in France tend to consider the quality of labor relations in France quite low, in 2010 43% of French citizens declared trust in labor unions, as compared with 25% in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Macron has put labor relations at the center of his reform efforts. He wants to make it harder for labor unions to extend collective agreements beyond those who signed them. His proposed reform introduced the possibility for companies with fewer than 20 employees to negotiate a collective agreement even in the absence of a union delegate, provided at least two-thirds of employees support the agreement. It also allows companies with 20 to 50 employees to negotiate with an elected representative even if not explicitly mandated by the unions. Unions fear that these initiatives will threaten their dominance and lead to abuses by employers who have stronger bargaining power than employees.
Some observers believe these reforms could actually serve to improve and rejuvenate labor unions. The reform would give workers more incentives to join, rather than free ride on sector-level agreements. Moreover, by bringing negotiations closer to the workplace, the quality of labor relations may improve as unions and employers would be more inclined to negotiate concrete and pragmatic agreements without the political symbolism that often marks negotiations at national level. Suffice to say, not all labor unions in France see it that way.
While for most foreign observers strikes remain a typical French feature (so much that they were featured in a controversial artwork exposed in the building where European leaders met in Brussels some years ago), times seem to be changing for French unions as well. Thus far, they have failed to disrupt things enough to force concessions from Macron. The next question will be whether they have the power to stop him from changing the way they themselves operate.
The opinions and arguments expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OECD or its member countries.