When French labor militants called in April for a boycott of Group Danone (DA ) products to protest company layoffs, Nicole Notat, leader of the country's biggest union, demurred. A drop in Danone's sales could lead to more job losses, she said--and the boycott soon fizzled.
That pragmatism has made Notat, 53, one of Europe's most effective labor leaders. As head of the 830,000-member Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT), she's redefining labor's role in a country where unions traditionally go to the barricades sooner than to the negotiating table. "Workers no longer want unions that simply produce conflict," Notat says. "They want them to be more useful, more effective."
To the dismay of hard-line unions and France's ruling Socialists, Notat is negotiating with France's employers' association, MEDEF, on overhauling government-mandated worker benefits. She differs with MEDEF on details, but she agrees that France's welfare system needs to be modernized.
With stylish suits and frosted hair, Notat cuts a striking figure in the world of French labor. A former schoolteacher from eastern France, she's the only woman ever to head a major French union. Male union members sometimes heckled her after she was elevated from deputy head of CFDT to the top job in 1992. That changed in 1995, when the government announced plans to streamline the national health-insurance system. Other unions staged strikes, but CFDT backed the plan. Notat won over members by holding scores of public meetings to explain that everyone would benefit from a more efficient system. Most reforms were enacted.
Notat is no pushover for business, though. She was furious earlier this year when MEDEF said employers might stop contributing to workers' supplementary pension plans unless the government and unions agreed to pension reforms. "We considered it a provocation," she says. But she knows reform is needed; the ratio of retirees to active workers is rapidly rising. "The more we put off the decision, the more it's going to sting." Such straight talk should keep Notat in the forefront of change.