Online Extra: Q&A: Nicole Notat, Labor Star

The only female French union leader goes her own way -- sometimes to the dismay of friends as well as foes

Nicole Notat, the head of France's largest union, is charting a new, less-antagonistic course for French labor activists. When the leading French employers group, the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), called last year for overhauling government-mandated worker benefits, the Socialist government and most union leaders accused the employers of grandstanding. But Notat and her 830,000-member Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) agreed to negotiate with employers, who warned that they could no longer afford the rising cost of France's traditionally generous benefits.

Last fall the CFDT, which represents a broad range of public-and-private-sector workers, hammered out an accord with the MEDEF -- grudgingly accepted by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- that streamlines the country's unemployment insurance program, gradually reducing benefits to recipients if they repeatedly turn down job offers. Now, she's talking with employers about reining in the costs of other benefits, such as pensions and health insurance.

Not surprisingly, Notat wins plaudits from business leaders for her moderate approach. At the same time, she's attracting thousands of new members to the CFDT each year, at a time when more-militant French unions are shrinking. A former schoolteacher who grew up on a dairy farm, Notat lives modestly in the working-class Paris neighborhood of Belleville where the CFDT is headquartered. She spoke recently with BusinessWeek Paris correspondent Carol Matlack. Following are edited excerpts of that conversation:

Q: How does the CFDT's approach differ from that of other French unions?

A: The history of French unionism has been one of confrontation, infused with the tradition of class struggle. But today things are less black-and-white. Workers no longer want unions that simply produce conflict. They want them to be more useful, more effective. At the CFDT, that has been our vision for the past several years. We won't be complacent, but we believe that the future of unionism will be more in the direction of dialogue.

Q: Is that why you agreed to the MEDEF's request to negotiate on unemployment insurance?


Yes. We see this as an opportunity. We want negotiations between unions and managment to become normal. But the culture of negotiation is not yet well-anchored in France. It's clear to us that the idea of unemployment insurance is not only to protect the unemployed but also to provide them with the means to return to work, to receive training, to be informed of job openings, and so on. Yet the other unions contested this. They were only interested in the protections. The negotiations were very tense. Before we started there had been confrontation between MEDEF and the government, and that also polluted the atmosphere. There was a lot of mistrust. But finally we reached an agreement and it takes effect on July 1. Then the unemployed can judge for themselves.

Q: Are you optimistic about reaching an agreement on pension reform? Earlier this year, employers threatened to stop contributing to workers' supplementary pension plans, in an effort to force negotiations on pensions.


We considered that a provocation. In this country, people are attached to the idea of having control of their time, being able to choose the time when they retire. You have to be supple. On the other hand, we know that if we leave [the pension system] as it is we will have problems. [With the ratio of retirees to workers expected to rise sharply over the next decade], the more we put off the decision, the more it's going to sting.

Q: How are your relations with the Socialist government?


Sometimes we have the impression that the leftist government is trying to take the place of unions. They seem to think they know what's best for workers, and that our role is not very useful. They say we are important, but in fact they seem to think the system would function quite well without us.

Q: You had a major break with the Socialists and with other unions in 1995, when you supported conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppé's plan to reform the national health insurance system. Why did you do that?


It was an easy position for the CFDT to take, because it corresponded with our objectives. And we're very attached to our independence from political parties. No matter which party is in power, if an idea is good, we support it. We don't automatically oppose the Right. We can see now that 1995 was a turning point for us. We were able to distinguish ourselves and gain visibility. Yes, it was controversial, but overall we profited from the situation.

Q: How did you get into the labor union movement?


I've always been sensitive to injustice, and I like the idea of taking things in hand, taking control of one's life. I was 20 years old in 1968 [when France was rocked by massive protests]. That made a very strong impression on me, and I was especially attracted by the leadership of the CFDT at that time, so I got involved.

Q: How hard is it to be the only woman running a union in France?


Certainly, people expect more from a woman. You have less margin for error, although at times you get a certain amount of sympathy. We've tried to elevate the role of women in the CFDT. Now, 25% of our top leadership is female. But as for other unions, it still seems as if things are a bit frozen up.

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