Laurent Berger, leader of France’s top union: ‘The Le Pen rocket has lifted off; now we have to prevent it from going into orbit’

The general secretary of the CFDT is calling on the French government to pause its controversial pension reform, warning that the conflict is turning into a democratic crisis

Laurent Berger
The general secretary of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, during an interview Tuesday in Paris.Samuel Aranda
Marc Bassets

Alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, the trade unionist Laurent Berger is the most decisive actor in the battle for pension reform in France. Any solution to the political and social crisis that the country is experiencing will surely go through the leader of France’s first union and the president of the French republic.

Berger is the general secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), the largest French trade union confederation by number of members and traditionally described as reformist or moderate in contrast to the more combative CGT union. The 54-year-old also chairs the European Trade Union Confederation. While the CFDT has been an ally of Macron and other governments in previous reforms, it has opposed from the start the French government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 years and push forward the requirement for workers to have contributed a minimum of 43 years in social security payments — instead of 41 — to be eligible for a full state pension. If the CFDT had not opposed the reform, the French government would have had less trouble with its implementation.

In an interview with EL PAÍS and other European media outlets from the Leading European Newspaper Alliance (LENA) on Tuesday, Berger detailed his proposal to end the political and social crisis in France. His ideas go beyond reform: he embodies a social democratic left that in France has long since lost its voice.

Question. There is violence and chaos in the streets of France: society is rebelling, but the president is not giving in. What’s the way out?

Answer. There is a social anger that is beginning to transform into democratic anger. It is a great social movement that has not been seen since the early 1980s. The reason is simple: the pension reform and everything it reveals about the world of work. Those in power have not taken into account what happened during the pandemic, which shook up the relationship with work, especially for front-line and second-line workers: those in caregiving, assistance, cleaning and agri-food. They were there during the lockdown, they did not get any recognition in terms of salary, and the recognition they are getting now is to work two more years. Those most affected by the reform are those who started working between the ages of 18.5 and 21 in low-skilled professions. The conflict started with pensions, was poorly managed in parliament and has become a democratic crisis.

Q. What is the solution, then?

A. You have to press the pause button. This means temporarily suspending the law and discussing it again in the framework of a process with mediators. The first overture from those in power is to say: ‘Okay, let’s put 64 years aside for a while and talk again.’

Q. Would the hiatus be for six months?

A. Yes, enough time to calm things down and find a compromise.

Q. Can Macron hit the pause button without losing credibility?

A. Imagine there is a tragedy at a demonstration one of these days. Then he would lose credibility. If I am making this proposal, it is so that nobody loses it. My idea is to say: ‘Listen to what is happening, listen to the breathing of society and the world of work’. There is enormous tension, and if the law is enacted, the tension will turn into resentment. Have you seen the projection of seats in the National Assembly if parliament is dissolved and early elections called? The [far-right party] National Rally [RN] will double its lawmakers, the NUPES [left-wing alliance] will not make any gains, the presidential majority will be cut in half...

Q. Nearly all of France’s neighbors have a higher legal retirement age.

A. Yes, but look at the effective retirement age. Our legal retirement age is 62, but the median retirement age is 63 years and three months. Expert projections indicate that it will rise to 64 years and a little more. When you look at other European countries, the retirement age is 65 or 67, but the effective age is lower. I love European comparisons. But in the past six years [under Macron], unions and the government have never entered a dialogue like the one that is currently taking place in Spain, which is able to reach compromises. Never!

Q. Would you agree to set retirement at age 63, instead of 64?

A. Why at 63? They have turned age into a political object. We are talking about people’s lives at work. Right now, the country is in extreme tension, there is an enormous risk to democracy, and all this to save €10 billion [$10.8 billion] a year. It’s an important amount, but the last measure to support fossil fuel companies was €12 billion [$13 billion]. The age is dogmatic: the president himself said so in 2017.

Q. How do you manage the problem of calling for demonstrations, knowing that protests can become a pretext for violence?

A. There is a problem, and the way to fight it is to speak up. The black blocs hate unions as much as they hate the government and journalists. Violence must be condemned unambiguously. Now imagine if there were no calls [to demonstrate] from the mobilized unions: there would still be violence.

Q. Where does this level of violence, which is rarely seen in other European countries, come from?

A. There is a nihilistic mood in some radicalized groups. I have seen black blocs attack a mutual bank: they thought they were attacking capitalism.

Q. And what do you think about the protesters hanging or burning effigies of Macron?

A. I condemn it. Symbolic violence is the same for me. I have pointed out a problem to the government: what is the democratic perspective of a country, including its relationship with violence, when the Yellow Vests [grassroots protesters initially motivated by rising fuel prices] mobilized a maximum of 284,000 people and [the government] decided to spend €13 billion [$14 billion] [in response to the protests], and now, after at least nine peaceful mobilizations with 1.5 million peaceful protesters, there is no response?

Q. If the government accepts your proposal for dialogue, could it be doing so because of the violence? Is it violence that prompts the government to take action?

A. It upsets me that in a democratic country, violence is more disturbing than social anger that is expressed peacefully. Both should worry the government. If I propose a solution, it is because I believe that we must be responsible.

The leader of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, (c) at a demonstration in Paris on Tuesday.
The leader of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, (c) at a demonstration in Paris on Tuesday.Samuel Aranda

Q. Macron has also proposed a way out: letting the democratic process take its course and allowing the Constitutional Court to rule and talk about all the issues you mention, such as the quality of work. Why not accept it?

A. He is proposing to talk about burnout at work, the end of professional careers, the employment of the elderly. These are important issues that should have been included in the reform plan. We proposed this in October, with a great law on work, employment and pensions. They wanted to focus on pensions, saying “blood, sweat and tears” were needed. And here we are now. The boomerang has come back.

Q. If Macron does not agree to hit the pause button, as he has already hinted, what will you do?

A. We are not factions. I will not end up in front of a demonstration with 100,000 people behind it. That would not make sense. We will see how employees and union teams react. If we stopped today, they would continue going. If the law is promulgated, I don’t know what would happen, but the anger, the resentment, the rage of some, would move to another area: the political terrain.

Q. Is Marine Le Pen the only winner from this situation? Is the red carpet being rolled out for her for the 2027 presidential elections?

A. I think the rocket has lifted off, but now we have to stop it from going into orbit. This means that we have to wake up collectively. The National Rally does not care about pensions and social issues, but it will use two factors that are key to the party, and that we know from other countries that have fallen into the hands of the extreme right: distrust in institutions and social resentment. And all this, while acting fairly neutrally in the National Assembly, maintaining a show of respectability. So I am distressed, to say the least, by the arrival of RN to power. Will it be in the presidential elections? Or in the legislative elections? I don’t know. But there’s still time to rise up, build hope and set a new direction. And that is not what is being done. Where is the direction of those who lead us today? It doesn’t exist.

Q. Is France in need of a social democracy?

A. There has never been a true social democracy in France. There was never a Michel Rocard or Jacques Delors or Pierre Mendès-France who was in power long enough. But there has been a space that congregates a social democracy. Today is a bit complicated.

Q. Many dream of seeing you embody this social democracy. Should you heed this responsibility and go into politics?

A. I am a trade unionist. I have no political whims. There are many people who can prevent [Le Pen] from going into orbit, and they are politicians. But if we had a situation of complete democratic madness and if, at a given moment, it was necessary to take part in the reflection, of course I would be there. I am not going to be a deserter.

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