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Philippe Martinez, the union leader taking on Macron

Along with his bushy moustache and gruff method, Philippe Martinez actually appears the a part of the revolutionary Frenchman as he leads protests geared toward forcing President Emmanuel Macron to desert his bid to boost the retirement age.

However individuals who know him say the 61-year previous boss of the CGT, France’s oldest and most hardline labour union, has rigorously cultivated that picture, which is in actual fact considerably synthetic. The actual Martinez, they are saying, is a canny negotiator and pragmatist with a dry sense of humour.

The previous metalworker at automaker Renault is now placing these expertise, in addition to his notoriety, to make use of in essentially the most pivotal battle of his eight-year tenure on the helm of CGT.

Blocking Macron’s pensions reform is the speedy precedence. However so is managing his succession (he steps down on the finish of the month) and preserving the CGT related at a time when membership has fallen a lot that it has misplaced its crown as France’s largest union to the average CFDT.

“We should put France at a standstill to make the president hear us,” mentioned Martinez on Monday. The CGT has hardened its techniques, with rolling strikes which have disrupted transport, blocked deliveries to petrol stations and lower electrical energy output at nuclear crops.

Martinez has been getting ready for this second since childhood. He was born in a Paris suburb to a Spanish republican activist mom. His father, a Frenchman, fought with anti-Franco forces within the Spanish civil conflict.

“Philippe grew up in a militant household so has been going to protests since he was a child,” says Fabien Gâche, a former colleague at Renault. “The conviction that social progress can come solely from staff establishing their energy within the streets is one thing that’s deep in his DNA.”

He first joined the Communist celebration’s youth wing in highschool, however later left the celebration. At 21, he started working as a technician on the Renault manufacturing facility in Boulogne-Billancourt on the outskirts of Paris. He remained on the French carmaker for his complete profession.

At Renault, he joined and climbed the ranks of the CGT, which was based in 1895 and has lengthy been related to worldwide socialism and the Communist celebration. Dominique Andolfatto, a political scientist on the College of Burgundy, says that though the CGT was usually seen as monolithic, it all the time contained various leftwing currents. “It’s a union that could be a reflection of French nationwide historical past and symbolises the fragmentation of the left.”

By the Seventies, the CGT had 2mn members. However by the point Martinez was preventing for staff at Renault, the union was already on the wane. Globalisation led to a wave of manufacturing facility shutdowns in France, whereas unions struggled to protect staff from the results of extra intense competitors and deregulation in enterprise. Membership has fallen to about 660,000 in the present day, in response to Andolfatto.

Martinez was to not solely in charge for the decline, in response to Denis Gravouil, the top of the CGT department representing staff within the cultural sector. He notes the frequent journeys to corporations of all sizes and kinds to listen to from staff. “Everybody wished to take selfies with him within the factories and at protest marches,” Gravouil says. “However he isn’t very diplomatic, in order that has created tensions internally.”

Because the pensions protests began, the CGT has shaped a profitable coalition with seven different unions in what has turned out to be the largest such mobilisation in many years. Martinez has allowed his critics to demonise him and the CGT for intransigence, letting the CFDT’s Laurent Berger be the face of the motion. In a front-page picture of the pair beaming at one another at a protest, the newspaper Libération dubbed the bromance “La lutte de miel”, which is a play on the French phrases for honeymoon and sophistication warfare.

“Philippe Martinez is just not some terrible individual as some wish to paint him,” mentioned Berger in an interview. “He’s a unionist who has rigorously cultivated his picture as a curmudgeon however really he’s completely targeted on labour points. He has led this motion in a really accountable method.” 

Martinez is adamant that elevating the retirement age to 64, which is paired in Macron’s proposed reforms with the requirement to work 43 years for a full pension, is profoundly unjust — he argues that it hurts blue-collar staff essentially the most. The CGT needs folks to retire at 60 with greater pensions for all, and he would fund it with greater taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

A authorities official who is aware of Martinez audibly sighs when requested in regards to the CGT’s pensions plan. “It might wipe out thousands and thousands of jobs!” the individual says. “Philippe is so dogmatic. His positions are outdated.” 

Throughout the CGT, Martinez is definitely seen as a average who has sought to draw youthful members by including points comparable to local weather change and feminism to the union’s agenda. He has nominated Marie Buisson, a schoolteacher, to succeed him, though different candidates are additionally operating. She could be the primary girl to steer one in every of France’s main unions.

Requested by a TV journalist not too long ago whether or not he would shave off his moustache as soon as he retired since he now not wanted to “encourage worry”, Martinez shot again: “You don’t like my moustache?” Whatever the destiny of his facial hair, he vowed that he would “nonetheless be within the streets with my comrades though now not on the entrance of the marches”.

leila.abboud@ft.com