Ninth day of national strike and protest in France against the pension reform
Protesters, holding CGT labour union flags, attend a demonstration during the ninth day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government's pension reform, in Nice, France, March 23, 2023. Reuters

France's unions may have failed to derail President Emmanuel Macron's push to raise the retirement age, but they are reaping big gains in new members thanks to the months-long battle.

Hydroelectric plant worker Jeremy Bensa joined the hardline CGT after he and co-workers in his unit at state power group EDF took turns downing tools over 45 days in protest against Macron's move to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.

"Right now, I think it's important that workers stand strong," Bensa, 37, told Reuters.

The unions' renewal raises questions over whether the balance of power within companies will shift back towards worker interests after Macron's 2017 overhaul of labour rules left them weaker, labour relations experts say.

Any such shift will hinge on union leadership's ability to respond to a new generation's set of concerns.

Macron faced months of nationwide strikes and sometimes-violent protests against his pension plans, ultimately passing it last month by using constitutional powers to circumvent opposition in parliament.

CGT leadership member Thomas Vacheron said the union had seen more than 30,000 new workers join since January, the biggest increase since rolling strikes in 1995 forced a conservative government to scotch a pension and welfare reform.

Meanwhile, the moderate CFDT, which with more than 600,000 members vies with the CGT for the title of France's biggest union, has seen 32,000 new joiners this year, up 40% from the same period last year, a CFDT official said.

Interest is growing among younger and private sector workers, where unions tend to be less well represented.

Vacheron said that more than 30% of the CGT's recent joiners were under the age of 35 while 70% were coming from the private sector, which traditionally is dominated by the CFDT.

"Since the retirement reform is contested by the young and old, public and private sector workers, they see a utility in belonging to unions, unions are attractive," Vacheron said.


While political pundits say the fallout from the pensions saga benefits the anti-establishment far right most, polls indicate that unions are not far behind, winning credibility and respect for their united resistance to Macron's plans.

"Unions are rebuilding themselves from the ground up through recruitment and not only street protests," sociologist Michel Wieviorka said.

The infusion of new blood is a boon for unions which had seen their numbers largely stagnate over the last decade at slightly more than 10% of the workforce, according to Labour Ministry data.

Barely higher than even the United States, that is one of the lowest unionisation rates in the 38-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Though membership is low compared to other countries, French unions traditionally have had an outsized role in labour relations with 98% of employees' workplace conditions negotiated by them, higher than nearly any other country in the OECD.

However, Macron's overhaul of the labour code in 2017 to give companies more leeway in setting working conditions has put unions under pressure in the workplace.

Labour relations consultant Stephanie Matteudi-Lecocq said that the momentum coming from pension reform pushback could ultimately put unions back on more solid footing in companies.

"Negotiations could become more interesting if workers get more involved. Unions have a card to play at the company level," she said.


Workplace conditions are why 34-year-old data analyst Igor Chaykovskiy joined the CFDT. He and colleagues are facing more complex labour issues as the digital music company they work at matures from a start-up to a more established firm.

"We're getting big really, really fast. It can be good to have the union's support in the face of these issues," he told Reuters.

In a sign unions are adapting to younger more digitally inclined workers, he said that signing up online was quick and easy.

The CGT, France's oldest union with roots going back to 1895, has made a push to recruit through social media with a TikTok video "on est la CGT" (we are the CGT) chalking up millions of views.

Matteudi-Lecocq said the challenge now would be to keep making themselves relevant in a post-COVID world where home-working and frequent changing of jobs have become the norm.

Otherwise the newcomers could leave as easily as they joined.

"If tomorrow, it no longer suits me for whatever reason, I just have to send an email to end my membership," Chaykovskiy said.