French Labor Leaders Size up Yellow Vests

Union executives and scholars in France talk to Léa Bouchoucha about the unprecedented wave of social protests.

By Léa Bouchoucha
in Paris 
Special to Consortium News

“Pink Vests” protest in Paris, March 30, 2019. (Léa Bouchoucha)

Several weeks ago Emmanuelle Cheron, 43, was out on the Place de La République in Paris, along with other members of a new collective of professional child minders. They wore pink vests, held balloons and had set up a large pink-and-white banner that said “Maternal assistants are angry. No to the unemployment reform.” 

Later that Saturday, on March 30, the Yellow Vest protesters were going to be on the streets as usual. But Cheron and her allies wanted to stage their own, single-issue demonstration. Today, when a privately employed childcare worker loses a contract with a French family, government insurance will provide between 60 percent and 75 percent of the lost income. But the government is contemplating a reduction in that allowance that Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud may decree this summer. 

The trade union Force Ouvrière, or FO, has launched an online petition protesting the change that will be delivered to Pénicaud. So far 65,000 people have signed.

The “pink vests” are just one example of the many ways French people have been tapping into the protest spirit generated by the Yellow Vests, who have reached another of their closely watched moments of possible pivot.

The loose-knit movement has avoided getting pinned down in any formal political way, but now three lists of independent Yellow Vest candidates are running in the May 26 election for France’s representatives to the European Union parliament. That balloting event may also, in itself, reignite protests that have ebbed after a big May Day demonstration and amid more intense policing — including clouds of tear gassing and water cannons on May 11 — and concessions from the government.  

In an April 25 speech postponed from April 15 because of the fire that engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron promised to lower taxes by about $5.5 billion, stop the unpopular closure of rural schools and hospitals, peg pensions of less than $2,200 per month to inflation, and abolish one of the dominating institutions in French public life, ENA, or the National School for Administration, from which he and much of the government hierarchy have graduated.

The question is whether those concessions are enough to satisfy a movement that has spread a sense of expectant solidarity. A strong majority of French— 82 percent of those polled in an April 15 survey by the independent survey group IFOP — say they are looking for changes in economic and social policies.

Cheron: “Both Pink and Yellow Vest.” (Léa Bouchoucha.)

“I’m both Yellow Vest and Pink Vest,” Cheron told Consortium News. “I’m here today to support my job. It’s by standing up and being all unified that we will work something out.” (This interview, like all the rest, was conducted in French and translated.)

Guy Groux, a director at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the country’s largest public research organization, says “pink vests” such as Cheron fit naturally inside the Yellow Vest movement, which has been giving voice to workers who are, for the most part, not unionized.

“Unions work in companies, where they represent the workers, while Yellow Vests represent extremely different categories; such as artisans, entrepreneurs, liberal workers, homeless and retired,” said Groux, a specialist in the history of French trade unions, in a recent phone interview. “They don’t have the same parameters. It’s not the same population and they don’t have the same vocations. The operational scope of Yellow Vest well exceeds the regular perimeter of unions.”

Union leaders have, nonetheless, been keeping a close eye on the Yellow Vest movement. Here’s what three of those representing the largest unions had to say. 

Laurent Berger/CFDT

Laurent Berger: Took advantage of “Great Debate.”

Laurent Berger is general secretary, the top position, at CFDT, France’s largest union, with 860,200 members according to 2012 data.

Of the three leading unions in the country, the CFDT keeps the greatest distance from the Yellow Vests.

“Of course, what happened with the Yellow Vests appealed us,” Berger said in a recent phone interview, while on a train headed to Brussels. 

Berger said aligning with the Yellow Vests is a complicated because of what he described as so many unreasonable actors. 

“I continue to think that the Yellow Vests who mobilized right away, at the start, have legitimate claims because they face inequalities,” he said, adding that they expressed a legitimate anger and a need to search for real answers to inequalities. But on the other hand, he said the movement had been exploited by people with a “totalitarian logic.”

Berger added: “This means that while I’m worried about the outcry of people contending with serious inequalities, it does not mean however that I legitimate the xenophobic, homophobic and anti-democratic practices done by some.”

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On March 5, Berger and Nicolas Hulot — the former minister for the ecological and a just transition, who resigned last August at the government’s slow going on actions to curb global warming — took advantage of the pressure that the Yellow Vests were putting on the government to outline 66 proposals for a social and ecology pact in  Le Monde. 

From housing and intergenerational solidarity to fighting inequalities to education, the pact was presented in the framework of a national conversation that President Emmanuel Macron instigated in response to the Yellow Vests and called the “Great Debate.”

In the pact Berger and Hulot said a society that generates so much inequality and injustice and endangers the lives of our children and grandchildren, and millions of human beings around the world, is “nonsense.”

Yves Veyrier/FO

Yves Veyrier: Interested in expanding “union culture.”

Yves Veyrier is general secretary at FO, which is the third French major union behind the General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, and the CFDT.

In a recent phone interview, Veyrier said the Yellow Vests have been expressing the criticism that his union has been making for a long time, about the redistribution of wealth in favor of capital and away from wages.

On Oct. 9, 2018, more than a month before the Yellow Vests’ first demonstration on Nov. 17, FO, along with CGT and other unions, called a one-day general strike.  

Veyrier told Consortium News that he has been warning people in government away from austerity policies that have led to the closure of numerous local public services that have sparked the Yellow Vest unrest.

FO supports the Yellow Vest demands involving purchasing power, wages, transport, housing, the accessibility of public services. On the other hand, although some Yellow Vest leaders continue to call on Macron to resign, union leaders have never gone that far.

Veyrier says the Yellow Vests have highlighted the difficulties of people in precarious situations such as under short-term contracts, unemployed or in isolated work settings.  “We need to work on how we can better develop union culture with all this population,” he said. 

Fabrice Angéï/CGT

Fabrice Angéï: Yellow Vests providing an opportunity.

Fabrice Angéï is confederal secretary, an executive position with the General Confederation of Labor. He says the Yellow Vests are providing unions with a chance to play a role in shaping French society.

“For over 10 years now, unions have had no social policy victories, ” Angéï said in a recent phone interview. For instance, he said, there had been no progress on reducing work hours or raising wages. “At best, we have only managed to prevent a decline. Our failure on pension reform in 2010 and before has deeply affected the decisions of employees and can maybe explain the decrease of unionized employees.” 

The 2010 pension legislation signed by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has postponed the minimum retirement age by two years from 60 to 62. The reform sparked weeks of street demonstrations and nationwide strikes.

Angéï hopes the Yellow Vest demonstrations will reinvigorate the unions.

“In many cities, we have seen, from the beginning, CGT militants or activists, including those who were not participated anymore in union meetings, going to the roundabouts and joining Yellow Vest protests,” Angéï said. “We’re not in two hermetic worlds but in the same world and this ongoing [Yellow Vest] movement, with its exchanges and meetings and interest in collective actions, might contribute to a revival of unionization.”

But unions such as CGT, on the other hand, have no way to work formally with the Yellow Vests, which, like the Occupy Movement in the U.S. a few years ago, rejects any formal leadership.

Nonetheless, the CGT, which formed in 1895 and represents a wide variety of workers, has found ways to coordinate with Yellow Vests and allied protests. It helped Cherron and other “pink vests” organize for their March 30 demonstration. Before that, on Feb. 5, it joined the Yellow Vests in a day of nationwide protests calling for a higher minimum wage, increased pensions and improved public services. And on April 27 it called a daylong strike on the theme of a convergence among social struggles within the Yellow Vest movement.

Question of Convergence

Whether such a convergence is truly possible remains to be seen, said the National Center for Scientific Research’s Groux, a sociologist who specializes in the history of French trade unions. “Pink vests” and other worker in highly unstable jobs may represent an opportunity for union organizers, but Groux doesn’t see many other examples. 

“These phenomena are intra-community, very local and small in numbers,” he said. “The CGT is capable of bringing out, by itself 10,000 or 20,000 protesters,” but he said those numbers did not turn out for the Yellow Vest protests. “When we will have such numbers, we will be able to speak about such a convergence but so far that hasn’t happened. ” 

Groux notes that unions are weak throughout Europe and many are concentrated in the public sector.

Union membership in France has slid from 20 percent of all workers in 1960, to less than 8 percent today, earning it one of the lowest scores in this international OECD ranking.  That compares with 17.6 percent in Germany, 24.2 percent in United Kingdom and 35.7 percent in Italy. Scandinavian countries have union membership above 60 percent

However, a comparison is difficult to make with other European countries where membership determines acces to social benefits or collective agreements.

In France, on the other hand, negotiations conducted by unions can extend to other workers in the same industry, unionized or not. This explains why the vast majority of workers have collective agreements: 93 percent in 2008 compared with 56 percent on average in countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

And, French unions still have considerable power in collective bargaining and have demonstrated their ability to paralyze the country with massive strikes, making regularly international headlines.

Dominique Andolfatto, a political science professor at the University of Burgundy in Dijon who specializes in syndicalism, says it’s hard to calculate the changes that the Yellow Vest movement may have brought, or are still capable of bringing,  because it is unprecedented in the French social history.

“I don’t see any similar movements because the Yellow Vests connect workers and employees, unemployed persons and small employers,” Andolfato said. “Eventually, we may be able to compare it to the Red Cap movement known as ‘Bonnets Rouges’ in Britany in October 2013 against an eco tax.”  The Red Caps included employers, farmers, fishermen and political activists who became notorious for their violent protests against an environmental tax, which the government wound up suspending.

Léa Bouchoucha is a multimedia journalist currently based in Paris. Her work has appeared in Vogue U.S, the Huffington Post, NPR, CNN International, Women’s eNews, Euronews, Elle, Le Figaro. She has reported from Turkey on Syrian refugees and LGBT rights and from Israel, where she was working as a news editor and reporter at the international news channel I24 News.

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20 comments for “French Labor Leaders Size up Yellow Vests

  1. Mike Brooks
    May 23, 2019 at 08:01

    The yellow vests are a French version of AntiFa. These are violent lunatics that are more Bolsheviks than anarchists, with their seeing themselves as the leaders of their animal farm.

    • James Whitney
      May 23, 2019 at 08:58

      No information given to justify this comment, probably because none exists.

  2. Dan
    May 21, 2019 at 06:37

    Great work Least!

  3. Silly Me
    May 19, 2019 at 06:09

    Typical infiltration tactics…

  4. Kalen
    May 17, 2019 at 16:08

    This is quite misleading as YVs from November 2018 were attacked and condemned by unions, recently as antisemite, as YV movement is a direct response to Trade Unions impotence inability to protect entire working class except for party apparatchiks last few decades especially millions that were relegated to trashy zero value contracts of geek jobs economically unstable unable support families young and old precarious life among increasing standard of living pushed out of cities to suburbs.

  5. mike k
    May 17, 2019 at 15:50

    The yellow jackets makes us feel all that is lacking in the US in terms of social protest. We have been effectively neutered.

  6. James Whitney
    May 17, 2019 at 14:27

    With its account of the Pink Vest movement the article touches on the core of Macron’s policy which is make as many jobs as possible precarious. Traditionally public service jobs: rail, postal service, schools, hospitals, airports have already been or are being privatized in accordance with the wishes of the European Commission, to promote “free and fair competition” which means competiion to lower wages (wages are regarded as costs for employers instead of income for workers). Short term contracts are more and more the rule, and once a contract has been completed, the worker has to scrounge for another job. Huge stress and uncertainty, and a reduced life expectancy. Greater profits for the big multinational companies traded on the CAC 40 Paris stock exchange. The biggest dividends anywhere come from the CAC 40 companies. Meanwhile just try to get some treatment in a hospital emergency service. My granddaughter recently waited for hours and gave up. A woman in Paris waited for 12 hours before someone noticed that she had died. The medical personnel are drastically understaffed and overworked and underpaid. This is the norm in public service today, which is why the yellow vest movement has frightened the government (and already obtained a few important consessions) in the face of severe police repression which has resulted in many serious injuries and one death.

    Major Yellow Vest demands include the implementation of a procedure for referendums for specific proposals on particular topics, for example equitable taxes, recall of elected officials during their term of office, etc.

    Most Yellow Vest participants are people from regions which have lost schools, medical clinics, rail transportation etc. They are really hurting, and so their demands are deeply felt, so they continue their efforts in spite of the repression. A very important number have no faiith in national political figures and thus have not often voted, and are unlikely to vote in the current campaign for the European Parliamant. It is important to understand, however, that the political movement La France Insoumise has been campaigning for just about all the demands of the Yellow Vest movement over the past two years.. Of course the mainstream media (mostly owned by 9 billionaires) considers the Insoumise movement as ENEMY NUMBER ONE for the past two years: it is truly amazing what you read on their internet sites, see on TV or hear on the radio these days.

    The media treats the European Parliament elections May 26 as a contest between the Macron party and the hard right party now called National Rally (Rassemblement National). The leaders of these two groups get almost all the media exposure. The idea is that if you oppose the extreme right you have to vote for Macron’s list But I as a French citizen will vote for the Insoumise. Hope this movement does well in the election.

    The U.S. economist Michael Hudson has written a lot about this phenomon, for example in his book “Killing the Host” which has a lot of detail about how economics works these days, including the European Union. He explains very clearly how things work. Worth reading.

  7. Jeff Harrison
    May 17, 2019 at 12:40

    One wondered how long it would take for the people to start to scream about the ridiculous austerity that has been foisted on the Europeans. Here they are with ridiculous unemployment numbers and sinking government services all because (a) the US blew up the world’s financial system because Slick Willie allowed the bankers to gamble with depositors money and (b) because they all bought into the neo-liberal economic bullshit that is indistinguishable from Herbert Hoover’s nostrums of the Great Depression.

    Yet they continue to support American intervention even as it produces entire oceans of misery and floods their countries with foreign refugees. They continue to support American sanctions even as those sanctions hurt their economies and future prospects even as the sanctions have little impact on the US. It was Einstein who said the working definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

    • anon4d2
      May 18, 2019 at 21:26

      Good points; it is astonishing that the US has no such movement. The people are nearly all idiotic cowards, with no communication or intellectual activity beyond the mass media. France puts the US to shame in its courageous resistance; that is just what the US needs.

  8. hetro
    May 17, 2019 at 11:10

    “A strong majority of French— 82 percent of those polled in an April 15 survey by the independent survey group IFOP — say they are looking for changes in economic and social policies.”

    It is very obvious the natives are restless all over the globe, with clear indications from the Trump victory in 2016, a complete surprise that so upset The Establishment it brought on the collusion fantasy now unraveling toward prison sentences for the perpetrators; the Brexit vote which is still very strongly supported in Britain (and could begin a yellow vest movement there); and the French outrage as indicated here.

    The message is on the wall that the people are very fed up, eager for change, more and more restless and angry. It feels somewhat like 1789 to me.

    I hope to be indulged to repeat a link I made yesterday to an interview with Tulsi Gabbard. I believe tying international public sentiment together is a good focus for more attention.

    This lady declares herself servant to the people, and continually talks as a people’s representative, with strong views on pardoning Assange, stopping the regime change wars and wars in general, and addressing the corrupt state of the union the US has become.

    At CN I have joined other commenters in calling for a new third party effort, beyond the existing 3rd parties, and with a clear and massive call-out to a People’s Party foremost, ridding the country of its entrenched plutocracy and bureaucracy, and exposing its true motives at global domination and neoliberalism. Gabbard is a Democratic candidate now amidst an increasing field of wannabes, with Biden the Centrist Neoliberal leading the pack.

    I believe “settling” for Tulsi Gabbard may be the way to go, given the strangle-hold on third parties The Establishment exercises to minimize them.

    Interview from May 13. Two and a half hours. Recommended. Let it roll and enjoy it. Lively, human, amusing, candid.

    • Dan
      May 21, 2019 at 06:40


  9. john wilson
    May 17, 2019 at 05:32

    I wonder how many of these young pink vested women voted for the young, hansom Macron. The fact is Macron was a young fresh face so people went out and voted for him, thinking he was a gift from some kind of divinity. I have been alive now for many decades and am a war child. During all this time I have lost count of the new young (and some not so young) faces who were going clean up politics and work for the people. They all, without exception, turned out to be absolute bastards. If anyone can find me a politician who isn’t a total rsole and up to his/her neck in out and out debauchery, then you can have my old car and I will throw in the wife for free.

    • Tiu
      May 17, 2019 at 17:05

      Looks like you’ll be keeping the car, and the wife!

    • Sam F
      May 18, 2019 at 21:34

      That is because the US elections and mass media are controlled by money, in turn controlled by the scammer bullies who rise in a unregulated market economy. That is a fundamental design flaw that cannot be fixed: it is time to recycle the US.

  10. Tiu
    May 17, 2019 at 03:38

    I hope the unions do not get involved in the Gilet Jaune movement – a protest that is the result of a broad spectrum of French people. Union involvement will introduce the Left vs Right paradigm and provide a wedge for the over-lords to derail and split the movement.

    • Tim Janssen
      May 17, 2019 at 12:17

      That depends on the leadership of both Gilets Jaunes and the Union. It is a given whether such leadership exists.

    • May 19, 2019 at 14:32

      Left vs Right is the appropriate language. Why would you want people to have their ability to communicate curtailed?

      • Tiu
        May 20, 2019 at 03:40

        The small group of people who control the money supply have also been controlling the Left vs Right narrative for well over a hundred years. If people still keep buying the Left vs Right narrative we’ll all be going around the same mulberry bush for another hundred years!
        Gilet Jaunes looks to me like a wide spectrum of people, and if you introduce a historically Left paradigm (the Unions – the first Workers International meeting was gate-crashed and thereafter taken over by Karl Marx, he didn’t originate the movement), you will undoubtedly weaken the support from those Gilet Jaunes who are not Left people. Most political opposition is controlled opposition nowadays, e.g. the Greens, Amnesty International, Save the Children, World Wild Life Fund etc. etc.
        A broad spectrum of people against the small group who control the money – that’s the one to nail down.

      • May 20, 2019 at 11:29

        The appropriate language is Up vs Down. The enemy that divides us conquers us.

      • Tiu
        May 20, 2019 at 18:03

        Left vs Right is not the appropriate language. In Italy there is a coalition government of the Left AND the Right voted in in opposition to the money controlling “elite”. The Unions nowadays get the majority of their members from government employees, they do not represent the masses by a long-shot.
        I can’t see the Unions lining up to support any of the leaders in the article linked to above. The unfortunate thing is the money controlling “elite” are woven into the fabric of the post-agrarian, industrial and post-industrial society we inhabit – although they didn’t get into the driving seat until the late 19th century. Changing it will be shocking and painful, but worth it.

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