“The World Is Divided in Two”
- Cole Stangler
The rise of the far right in post-industrial France has led many to declare the end of the old class politics. For CGT union leader Philippe Martinez, the battle isn’t over — organized labor just needs to adapt to new forms of employment.
- Interview by
- Cole Stangler
Philippe Martinez is the general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), one of France’s two largest labor confederations and the most popular in the public sector. The son of Spanish immigrants, Martinez began his career as a technician at Renault. He was first elected as head of the CGT in 2015, winning re-election to another four-year term earlier this month in Dijon.
Since its foundation in 1895, the CGT has played a pivotal role in organizing workers in France. The confederation has also helped win the country’s fundamental labor rights through collective action, from strikes under the Popular Front in 1936 and its support for the Resistance to May 1968 and the public-sector work stoppages of 1995. Long linked to the French Communist Party, the CGT no longer maintains formal ties to political parties. The confederation has also struggled in recent years, losing support in the private sector and failing to defeat a series of government reforms through strikes and protests.
To get a closer look at the state of organized labor in France, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke with Philippe Martinez at his office in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. This interview has been translated from French.
At this year’s May Day protests we saw a very heavy police presence at the march in Paris. Some would call this “police repression.” What’s your analysis of what happened?
The Interior Minister, who’s been widely criticized, said even before the march that there would be a lot of damage. He talked about two to three thousand black bloc protesters arriving from across Europe, which then justified an extraordinary police presence. In reality, there weren’t that many of them.
There was, of course, a desire to show a police presence, and we think that there was an attempt to create an unhealthy climate around the demonstration. Traditionally, May Day is a union march. So there were orders — the police doesn’t act without orders — to repress the union part of the demonstration. Including at the beginning of the march, and then during the march, with a rain of tear gas, riot police charges, and then the use of a water cannon near La Pitie Salpetriere Hospital.
A lot of workers and CGT supporters didn’t come out to protest because of this climate. Others couldn’t access the march, especially at the beginning. From our point of view, there’s also an effort to show that unions have lost control of the May 1 marches, that they’ve been overrun by black bloc and by the Yellow Vests.
I wanted to talk about the Yellow Vests, of course. The movement started last November. Your impression — and by you, I mean the CGT, the official position — you were a bit suspicious at first. Clearly things have changed. Could you explain how your perspective on the movement has evolved?
Our vision of the Yellow Vests has evolved with the movement itself. In late October to early November, there was an online petition, calling for a mobilization with the Yellow Vests around one question: the non-application of Macron’s fuel tax. This was the only demand. We saw there was a whole debate around this position, but it was a shared stance among the grassroots. As they put it, “Life is too expensive, it shouldn’t be any harder.” There was also a whole series of corporate executives speaking out and saying “there are too many taxes in this country, we need to get rid of social contributions.” And yet, social contributions aren’t taxes. They’re what make Social Security work in France.
Slowly but surely, this movement has transformed, from just wanting to cut a tax to becoming a more socially-conscious movement: it is for an increase in the minimum wage, tax justice, public services, a movement that looks like what unions do. Business owners withdrew their support and the government no longer looks at this mobilization the same way.
We made contacts, we discussed things, in some places it’s easy, in some places less so. Because each movement is different, there are no leaders, in every département, it’s different, even if it’s taking place across the country, it’s a very local movement, from one département to the next, from one traffic circle to the next. So we needed to do a lot of hard work, to try to have conversations. In any case, today nobody can deny that this is a movement largely dedicated to socioeconomic issues.
You said it’s a very local movement. It depends on where we’re talking about, but in some places, labor unions and unionists worked together with the Yellow Vests. I’m thinking of Toulouse, for example. In other places, the Yellow Vests are more skeptical of unions. How do you explain this?
Of course. When we don’t know each other, it’s hard to say we’re friends. The union, the vision that people have of unions, it’s the representatives in the workplace, it’s not Martinez on TV, at least not right away. Many Yellow Vests, a large majority, say themselves, “We’ve never seen a union, we’ve never protested.” So, they have a skewed image of the role and responsibility of unions. Since they’ve never spent time with them. There’s clearly a learning phase to get to know each other, but that also demands that we take the responsibility to make that happen.
The French trade unions, including the CGT, aren’t sufficiently established at the company level. We have a lot of work to do. When people get to know us at their workplace, their view of unions is very different than from when they don’t know us.
When you say unions aren’t sufficiently established at the company level, how is that possible? Seen from the US, we’d say you know how to mobilize, you have a strong institutional presence…
This is always hard to explain to my American friends, even to some European friends. We’re a country with one of the lowest union membership rates, but also one where there’s a lot of mobilizations, protests and strikes. This is the contradiction of French unionism.
In other words, it’s a more activist-based unionism as opposed to a service model of unionism that exists in certain countries, including the United States, where joining the union brings you specific benefits. In France, whether you’re a union member or not, collective bargaining agreements apply to everyone. The service aspect is much less present.
On the other hand, our weakness is linked to the evolution of the world of work. When large companies contract out their services and production, perhaps from a large company where the union is present, the union organization doesn’t always follow with the work that’s being outsourced. So everything needs to be rebuilt. This takes time. Subcontracting has taken on huge proportions in recent years and we haven’t been able to maintain our presence when business activities are contracted out.
Then there are all the new forms of work. I’m thinking of digital platforms, precariousness, temporary work, a world that’s a lot more individualized than large concentrations of blue-collar workers. Unionism needs to evolve, too, to say these workers also deserve to be defended. They need to have rights. It makes me think of the film Bread and Roses by Ken Loach, a film about union organizing by janitorial workers, individual cleaning workers. By design, these are workers we never see. They come in the morning before people are at the office and they come at night after people have left the office. Unionism needs to take this into account. It doesn’t accept this form of work, but it needs to take care of those who suffer it.
For example, I often say, we’re against working on Sunday but that doesn’t mean that those who are forced to work on Sunday are our enemies. They need to be defended too.
The goal is to broaden unionism to talk to new kinds of workers?
How should I put it? There are two worlds that exist. There are those who work and have only their arms or their head to make money, and then there are those who earn a lot of money watching others work. On one side there’s capital, on the other side, there’s labor. The world is divided into two. Like Clint Eastwood says, “there are those who have the shovel and dig and there are those who have the gun and watch the other dig.” It’s the same thing.
That’s a pretty classic Marxist vision.
I’m not the only one to say it. The bosses say it too. Technological advances don’t necessarily give us more freedom. The world is still divided in two, between the classes. Just because someone is self-employed it doesn’t mean they’re free. Sometimes they’re earning less than the minimum wage. They’re working hours and hours, and then in general, someone’s giving them orders.
Workers in France are still drawn to this vision of the class struggle?
It makes me laugh. There has been a lot of criticism of the CGT: “They’re going overboard, they never stop talking about how everyone’s angry, nobody’s angry, they’re annoying with us with their marches.” And then all of a sudden, there are people in yellow doing the same thing as us. What are the Yellow Vests doing? They’re coming together, making demands, and protesting. And suddenly, everyone says, “Ah, how magnificent.” Even if they say the CGT is old-fashioned, they were in admiration of people doing the same thing as us. So the sense of the collective in France is very much present. That’s why we’re not afraid of the Yellow Vests. They’re starting from their individual situations, coming together, and making collective demands. That’s exactly what the CGT is proposing.
We’re speaking in May, just ahead of the European elections. In the polls, the main forces are [President Emmanuel Macron’s] Republic On The Move and, on the other hand, the National Rally [ex-National Front]. It’s a political topic, but one that I think concerns you at the CGT. When we look at the polls — also not just the polls, we’ve seen in recent years that a lot of blue-collar and service sector workers are voting for the National Front. Why are there so many? These people who you, as unionists, represent, and who historically voted for the Left.
There are several phenomena. The first thing, I want to push back slightly against what you said. The majority doesn’t vote.
I know everyone says that, but still.
The majority doesn’t vote. You’ve seen the polls of voting intentions.
Yes, for the European elections.
And what about the parliamentary elections [in 2017]?
OK, the parliamentary elections, too. But what about the presidential election [in 2017]?
Emmanuel Macron is the single French president with the weakest electoral mandate. There’s a general trend, that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, presidents follow one another, they make big declarations, on the Right and on the Left, and when they’re in power, they do the same thing. We won’t go back too far but after the euphoria of the Left’s arrival in power in 1981, Mitterrand implemented austerity policies. Jacques Chirac had his “social fracture.” Then there was Sarkozy and his talk of “working more to earn more.” Hollande said “finance is my enemy.” People are sick of it.
The third thing is, there’s a downward spiral when politically no one is capable of exerting any influence over the economy. It was [Socialist Prime Minister Lionel] Jospin who said in 1997 that the state can’t do everything. Now whenever there’s a multinational that’s cutting jobs, Ford, for example, the state says “well, yeah, we can’t do anything.” Because they can’t do anything, people say “well, what’s the point of voting for them?” To remediate this, and this is dangerous, people take up classic arguments. Since one can’t act over the economy, it’s said that the problem is people are coming from abroad to steal jobs. It’s as old as the world, this. It’s as old as racism.
And rather than holding on to the Left’s essential values, anti-racism is an essential value, we’re slowly drifting away. When we have a Socialist president who wants to implement a law allowing the government to take away French nationality, this is blowing up social values that mark the difference between the Left and the Right. When Macron criticizes Orbán or Salvini, but then last week, he says, “we need to rediscover the art of being French, we need to strengthen border controls and we need to increase deportations,” if you read that not knowing he was the one who said it, you’d think more of Marine Le Pen or Laurent Wauqiez [the leader of the right-wing Republicans]. It’s a dangerous game.
We can tell that they want the debate to stay on this ground for these elections — I’m going to be a bit provocative — to vote for the less racist of the two. It’s incredible, but it’s very serious. Because the National Front has now twice made it to the second round of the presidential election. As it happens, both times after having a Socialist-led government, a left-wing government, which should worry us. But the debate, we’re seeing it again, is between the National Rally and the Republic on the Move.
Unfortunately when the debate stays like this… you know, it’s not new. I’m from an immigrant family that arrived in France in the 1930s. The 1930s in Europe, in France, it wasn’t the Arabs back then, it was the “penguins,” so the Spanish, the “ritals,” the Italians, the “polaks.” We had the same debate, they were “coming to eat the bread of the French.”
We have a kind of caricatural debate in the US attempting to explain how come Trump made it to office. To try to understand, how is it possible that people could vote for someone so horrible, racist and vulgar? Some ask if he really won because he tapped into economic hardships, or was it precisely this racist and xenophobic side that drew in voters? For you, when people vote for Le Pen’s National Rally, is it purely a rejection of the political class, or is there also racism?
There’s a bit of everything. Which is to say, when we don’t solve socio-economic problems, there’s a narrative that says the one who’s not like us is responsible. It’s as old as the world. And it works in every country. I was going to say France is well-placed, but I think the United States is even better placed than us. The wealth of a country is also built on cultural and social diversity. It’s a sad country where everyone’s the same. The United States is the symbol of this!
There are also issues linked to globalization. When you don’t solve economic problems, of course, it’s the same big industrial powers aided by governments that make jobs disappear, who make people feel guilty by saying, “You’re too well paid, if you accept to be less paid, the work won’t leave.” There’s also this. And then the unions are just considered troublemakers.
It’s the same in France, it’s the same everywhere. I had the opportunity, since I have comrades in the UAW at the factory in Canton, Mississippi. That there’s money spent on saying “vote no” on the organization of a union, it’s incredible!
The United Nations has criticized the US for this.
It’s not just the US. One shouldn’t accept the fact that a country doesn’t ratify the fundamental conventions of the ILO… the ILO is the UN. On the right to protest, to strike, to join a union.
There’s an idea that everyone who has rights — which should be the norm — are privileged. We should tell countries that don’t respect these rights, “Either you respect these rights, or your companies don’t have the right to come work here.” We’re proposing, for example, that there should be social clauses in all bids for public contracts that ensure that if you don’t respect fundamental rights, including the essential principles of the ILO, then you don’t have access to the market. This is public money, it’s our taxes. The construction of a building, a school, a train, companies that don’t respect fundamental labor rights shouldn’t have access to it. We’re turning the logic of competition on its head.
We’ve tried to innovate in France. It’s not well known, but for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024, for the first time in the history of the Olympics, there will be a charter of labor rights. Which is to say, there’s an environmental charter, but also a labor charter, with 19 articles saying companies need to respect the right to unionize, working conditions, etc. That’s one example. It’s received attention from unions. And even at the level of the Olympics, they’re saying, “It’s good what you’ve done, maybe we should make all candidate cities do the same.” Well, maybe not Los Angeles, but every candidate city should respect this type of contract.
I hope that’ll be the case for Los Angeles!
At the moment, they have the Olympics, but I haven’t seen a labor rights charter. In any case, it’s a debate.
A final question on France, and then we can go back to international issues. But my question on French politics is perhaps a sensitive one. It’s about your relationship, or maybe non-relationship, with political parties. I’m thinking of certain people who have called on the CGT, and other unions moreover, to soften their notion of independence vis-a-vis political parties, in particular, in the fall of 2017, when Jean-Luc Mélenchon called for a convergence between the CGT and La France Insoumise.
To pose a very direct question, do you think the CGT should work more closely with political parties, and LFI in particular?
We do work together. With everyone who wants to work with us. Except the National Rally, that’s out of the question. The Right doesn’t want to talk to us, but we have relationships with right-wing members of the National Assembly. With the president of the Senate, a former labor minister, who has a certain vision of labor issues. We don’t share everything, but at least, he’s interested.
Each time political parties solicit us, we give them our opinion. What we don’t want is for them to say, “This is what you need to do.”
That’s what Mélenchon tried to do, more or less?
More or less. We don’t want that. What do you do when the ones you support suddenly arrive in power and they do bad things? What do you say? We’re friends, so we’ll keep quiet? You see?
But that doesn’t prevent us from working together and including having actions together. But on the condition that each respects the other’s own terrain. We know about the workplace. Even if I told you we have difficulties, we know more about the workplace than political parties that listen to us.
For example, about a question that political parties don’t address, the question of work. Are people happy at work? Do they find meaning at work? Are they listened to at work? This is a debate that’s totally absent. And yet, it’s an essential debate. Democracy in the workplace, the idea that workers should be able to decide on environmental questions: “What you’re requiring me to make, is no good for the planet, can we talk about it?” No worker can talk about this. You do what you’re told and you keep quiet. It would be interesting, maybe, to have this citizen’s spirit at the workplace. Political parties should listen to us more.
Are there are examples from abroad that inspire you?
I’ve seen experiences in Africa, in Senegal and Burkina Faso. In Africa, there’s a lot of informal work. And unions that are created and win things. That interests me, how do we do that kind of development? A unionism grounded in the local level. There are also experiences in Latin America, where workers who are outside the classic framework join unions and have significant power.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Environmental questions are essential. The future of the planet is in question. But we can’t address environmental questions without addressing social and economic ones. We can’t oppose labor against ecology, because, as I was saying, I’m in favor of the idea of a responsible worker-citizen. There are a lot of workers who have ideas to protect the planet, including in industrial work, and who are currently prevented from working in service of the planet.
We can never dissociate labor from environmental questions and we don’t need to put up barriers or walls. We need exchanges, but maybe we need less industrial exchange and more cultural exchange, more mobility to discover other cultures. It would reduce racism because going to see others, welcoming workers from other countries, is always enriching. The CGT is fighting for undocumented workers, to regularize their status. These are struggles we’re very proud of.
You mentioned the topic, but thinking about Macron’s recent immigration reforms, Laurent Berger [the head of the rival CFDT union confederation] wrote an article in L’Obs magazine when the government unveiled this law. The CGT was, if I’m not mistaken, not very present in the opposition.
I wrote a column in Le Monde [defending immigrant workers and criticizing those who set French workers in opposition to foreign workers]. Maybe you read Le Monde less.
I saw it too. That’s true, that’s true.
On immigration, I was heavily criticized, including by Mélenchon. I think this was before the law took effect.
Are you optimistic about the future?
At the CGT, we have convictions. We want to change society. So I’m optimistic. What’s happening with the Yellow Vests shows that the idea of the collective means something. There’s not an individualistic culture in France. There’s a need to meet up, to act together. Nevertheless, we’re in a political environment in France — a situation in Europe, if not the world — that can sometimes lead us to wallow in anxiety, if not despair. But that’s not our style.