The union leader heading protests against France’s bitterly contested pension reforms has accused Emmanuel Macron of playing with fire and showing contempt for the country’s workers, reports The Guardian.
Philippe Martinez, head of the powerful CGT, said the president and his government were “disconnected” from the real world, and their advisers needed to “shake the hands of a few who actually work”.
He defended electricity workers who pulled the plug on homes and businesses last week, warning that forcing pension reforms through against public opposition could boost the far right. “People are angry to say the very least, especially young workers who believe their entire generation is being sacrificed,” Martinez said. “Mr Macron is so sure of himself, but he’s playing with fire. We’ve already had Le Pens – father and daughter – twice in the second round of a presidential election.”
Martinez was speaking as ministers approved the reform bill on Friday paving the way for its introduction to parliament next month, and demonstrators took to the streets again in a show of defiance following last week’s return to work by transport staff after a record six-week strike.
The Council of State, the government’s legal adviser, has also criticised the reform law as “imprecise” and “patchy”, and said that it had been given insufficient time to study the bill.
Martinez’s warning echoes that of Jean Grosset, of the left-leaning thinktank Jean Jaurès Foundation, who told the Observer in December: “If there’s no dialogue, no attempt to compromise, just force, it will leave traces of rancour in the country, which [the government] will pay for one day or another, most likely through the ballot box.”
Sitting in the conference room of the CGT’s headquarters near the périphérique ring road east of Paris after returning from the protests on the back of a motorbike, Martinez insisted that the union, the oldest, second-biggest and most powerful in France, was on the right side of the pension dispute.
“We’re not the villainous little Gaulois the president says we are,” he says. “We’ve been called militant and not reformist, but I dispute these labels. We are not against reform, we want it but not this reform.
“We believe we can improve the current system and have made many proposals, but this government doesn’t negotiate. We have a president who thinks he’s always right so it’s difficult to discuss anything. And when discussions don’t work, there are conflicts.”
Martinez is the diminutive but formidable figurehead of French unionism. His instantly recognisable face, with drooping moustache, is usually portrayed scowling, belying a dry humour. It has appeared on news kiosks and recent magazine covers as the face of the man who wants to “ruin France”.
In 2016 he was spearheading strikes, blockades and demonstrations against changes to labour laws pushed through by the then Socialist president, François Hollande. Back then he was headlined “the man who wants to bring France to its knees”. Then, as now, there were weeks of protests and industrial action. The labour law was eventually passed.
Half-Spanish through his mother, Martinez has led the CGT since 2015. He has many nicknames – Asterix, Super Mario – and has been likened to General Tapioca in Tintin, none of which particularly bothers him. Hate mail, including an anonymous letter reading “Dirty Spaniard, go back home”, is batted away. Being likened to a terrorist is harder to stomach.
“When an MP from the governing party compares the actions of the CGT to terrorism on the fifth anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, when a magazine opinion writer compares you to Daesh [Islamic State], that’s throwing oil on the fire,” he says angrily. “Ministers and MPs need to calm things down, not be insulting and disrespectful.”