Hardliner takes helm of France's CGT union

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Election of 'hard case' Philippe Martinez could make it harder for President François Hollande to get backing for economic reforms.

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France's powerful CGT trade union elected hardliner Philippe Martinez as its new chief on Tuesday in a shift that could make it harder for President François Hollande to win its assent to economic reforms, reports Reuters.

Hollande wants to push through changes aimed at creating more flexibility in France's rigid labour market and deregulating certain sectors, but French trade unions have often forced previous governments to abandon or water down reforms.

The moustachioed Martinez, known as a "hard case" by colleagues, is a Communist Party member and former Renault worker who previously headed the CGT's metallurgy section.

He is expected to resist Hollande's changes more forcefully than his predecessor Thierry Lepaon, who stepped down amid controversy over costly renovations of his office and an apartment near Paris.

Lepaon had struggled to rally support from the union's public sector members, and several of his strike calls fizzled due to weak turnout. During a round of union elections in companies in December, the CGT lost ground to its main competitor, the pro-reform CFDT.

Now hardliners expect Martinez to reassert the power of a union that brought down conservative prime minister Alain Juppé in 1995 after a massive strike against pension reforms. Today it represents 700,000 members across a range of industries, from car manufacturing to teaching.

Martinez has no biography on the CGT's web site, unlike other senior union cadres, and grants few media interviews.

Despite his tough reputation, people who have negotiated with him said he could be pragmatic when needed.

Read more of this report from Reuters.

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