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Do French unions still have the power to stop a government in its tracks?

French unions are preparing for the 'mother of all battles' against planned pension reform - but do the unions still wield the power to halt a government reform?

Do French unions still have the power to stop a government in its tracks?
Unions say they want a million people on the streets on Thursday. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

The government and the unions are squaring up for battle over plans to reform the pension system and raise the retirement age to 64 – with the first day of action called for Thursday, January 19th.

French unions have a good historical record when it comes to blocking pension reform – former presidents including Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy were forced to drop or at least modify plans for pension reform after furious protests and strikes. 

You can hear us discuss the strikes on the latest episode of the Talking France podcast, download it HERE or listen on the link below.

However the unions’ more recent record is less good – two months of strikes in 2019/20 did not succeed in stopping Emmanuel Macron’s first pension reform, while the most significant social movement of recent years – the ‘yellow vests’ – took place without union involvement.

So have France’s once mighty unions lost their power?

First day of protests

January 19th is the first strike day, and has been billed by unions as “the first day of mobilisation” with more to come – strikes and other protests are expected to continue until March, when the pension reform bill comes before parliament.

Calendar: Key dates in the French pension strikes 

Our politics expert John Lichfield told us: “This is a big moment for the unions. It’s a big moment for Macron as well because he has decided to push ahead with this, but for the unions also it’s a big moment because they have failed on a couple of other occasions recently.”

Unions have promised the ‘mother of all battles’ to defeat the planned pension reform, and it begins on Thursday, January 19th with a one-day strike and demonstrations in towns and cities across France.

The disruption to services – especially trains, Paris public transport and schools – looks likely to be significant, but there is another marker for the success of the action; how many people turn out for the demos.

John said: “The trades unions have set themselves up either for a big success or a big failure again on Thursday – they’re saying that want a million people on the streets and have set that as the benchmark for success or failure.

“They will of course claim there were a million people out whether there are or not, but there are ways of knowing how many people were there.

“If the turnout isn’t close to a million people I think that will be a success for the government, a sign that the mood of the country is against this reform but kind of resigned at the same time and not really willing to support the kind of long, guerrilla action that some of the unions are talking about.” 


So how many people are members of a union in France? It’s probably a lot less than you think, around eight percent of French workers are members of a union, they are strongly concentrated in the public sector, and membership has been falling for years. 

Crucially, however, workers do not have to be members of a union in order to strike. 

John said: “I’ve always said that you should view French unions more like political parties – they represent a point of view which goes beyond their actual membership and that’s why it is important for them to win the battle.

“They’re now facing a battle with their own memberships as well who have come to disregard or disrespect the central management of the unions and often take action of their own.”

France has eight union federations and they represent different political views – from the moderate CFDT to the radical CGT and Sud.

Hardline unions like the CGT are far more likely to call strikes – and to take direct action such as blockading refineries, cutting off power to sports grounds (as happened during the 2019 pension strikes) and cutting off power to the homes of politicians who back the pension reforms (as they have threatened to do this time, although it is unclear whether this is actually possible).

Their pronouncements tend to make headlines, but the fracturing of unions along political lines means that each union only represents a small portion of train drivers, teachers etc and therefore union actions only have real impact on services when they work together.

Pension reform is one of the few issues that can unite all eight of the union federations, and this is one of the reasons why pension protests tend to be big.

John told us: “One thing this time is that the eight federations are united – it’s rare for them to be all united because they have differing political views, but they are all united this time. The more moderate CFDT and CFTC are involved along with the militant ones like Sud and CGT.

“To what extent they will all stay involved to the bitter end is another question.”

Public support

Another crucial aspect for a successful protest is strong support from the public. Although most polls suggest that the French public are strongly opposed to raising the retirement age, support for strikes is less clear cut.

John said: “The public mood is very difficult to read and the polls are very strange in some ways. Around 60 to 70 percent of people are against this reform but not necessarily all reforms of the pension system – I don’t know what they have in mind apart from this – around 50 percent say they support the idea of fairly strong industrial action to stop the reforms.

“But it’s whether those people will turn out in big numbers that is the crucial question.”

Wildcat strikes

It’s perhaps significant that one of the biggest social movements in France in recent years had no union involvement – the ‘yellow vest’ protests grew out of Facebook groups and other online forums and had no formal organisation structure.

Many of the protesters’ complaints, such as the high cost of living and insecure working conditions, were core issues for the unions, and yet attempts by union leaders to get involved in the movement were largely rebuffed. 

At the same time, unions themselves have seen a growth in ‘wildcat’ strikes and unauthorised actions by members at a local level, and have experienced difficulty in keeping control of actions.

John said: “There’s now a new trend in France for small groups of trade unionists in a particular place to start taking action on their own without the involvement or the blessing of the union headquarters in Paris.

“This is worrying for the unions and worrying for the government and it’s a slight ‘yellow vest-ification’, if you like, of the union movement – people taking action into their own hands.

“For instance the oil refinery strikes in October last year that saw filling stations across the country run dry were something that was out of control, really, of the CGT union bosses in Paris and was run by militant figures at a local level.

“This time you already see those same workers talking about closing down refineries or reducing the output of refineries if this reform is pushed ahead with, which it will be. 

“There are some who fear that will happen again this time and this whole movement will spill out of the control of the unions and therefore out of control of the government so it’s a very difficult one to read.

He added: “Overall, how strong are French unions? On paper, not really. In reality, they have proved they can bring the country to a halt if they are all united. They might be able to do it again this time, but they have a lot of internal battles and weaknesses to confront as well.”

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French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.