In French Labor Overhaul, Union Leader Offers a Way to a Compromise

“We’ve just had a profound political shift, so we’re at a turning point where things can really change,” Mr. Berger said in an interview.

Much is at stake. Unemployment has been stuck around 10 percent for four years, and the economy has failed to recover from the financial crisis as fast as Germany’s.

Mr. Macron wants to steer France toward a more Scandinavian-style economic model known as “flexible security.” Pioneered in Denmark, it promotes consensus between unions and employers, and it aims to minimize joblessness by making it easy for companies to adjust their work force and by retraining the unemployed.

The idea is to no longer protect jobs for life, while giving people skills to transition to different careers.

“Workers still need protection, but in a globalized world, the economy must be able to adjust, too,” Mr. Berger said. “If unions just oppose everything, we’ll never move forward.”

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A labor union protest at Place de la République in Paris in June 2016.

Credit
Peter Kneffel/European Pressphoto Agency

Whether Mr. Berger follows words with actions remains to be seen. The C.F.D.T., as the union is known, recently became France’s largest when its membership surpassed the militant General Confederation of Labor, which has dominated the landscape for decades.

Amid Mr. Macron’s rise, Mr. Berger has sometimes painted his union as a moderating influence in France’s labor movement at a crucial moment for the economy. Mr. Berger has pushed for a more flexible approach in France as the forces of globalization change the competitive landscape.

Yet he is not immune to protesting when the stakes are high. On Sunday, he urged Mr. Macron to maintain discussions with unions and employer groups — or risk new demonstrations.

In France, even small changes tend to rile labor organizations, which have…

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