Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

"Intermediary bodies": Macron’s Friends or Foes?

 Blanche Leridon
Executive Director, Editorial and Resident Fellow - Democracy and Governance

Can Emmanuel Macron govern alone? Recent protests and strikes in France against the controversial pension reforms have once again reinforced the image of a "Jupiterian" president who is inflexible, authoritarian, and not interested in dialogue or negotiation.

Yet in France, certain actors are precisely there to foster dialogue, promote the sharing of ideas, cool tensions, and build political and social consensus. Collectively grouped under the (oh-so-French) label of "intermediary bodies", they have returned to center stage in the midst of the pension reform. Our latest French Brief takes a closer look at these bodies and delves into the often complex and contradictory relationships that they maintain with the government and the broader French public.

 The ABCs of Intermediary Bodies

Intermediary bodies—which encompass trade unions, political parties, associations, NGOs, media outlets and representatives of para-state organizations — are the subject of varying attitudes and opinions among the French population. Only in France are intermediary bodies both wanted and despised. They are lumped together into a single, indistinct mass where representatives of the people, employees, and various "causes" are indiscriminately mixed with those who are viewed as hindrances to positive change, and where private interests constantly compete with the public interest. Intermediary bodies in France often face conceptual ambiguity and semantic debates over their roles and definitions. But they are unified by their essential functions of mediation, representation, and structuring of public discourse and space. These elements lie at the core of democratic functioning and social dialogue in France. And they are currently being threatened. Some say intermediary bodies are weakened, illegitimate and rigid. The president went so far as to call them "factious". Not a day goes by without hearing someone predict their inevitable decline: "Movements" are destroying political parties. The Yellow Vests spell the end of unionism. Social networks are replacing traditional forms of human intermediation, rendering them obsolete. Et cetera, et cetera.

In a society that is becoming increasingly disintermediated, the question arises: can we do without these go-betweens? Do societal and technological changes, as well as the growing demands for direct democracy, signal their obsolescence and decline? Or conversely, does this changing landscape call for doubling down on intermediary bodies and reasserting their crucial function in French democracy?

Trade unions and political parties are constantly adapting

Intermediary bodies are at a critical juncture in France, facing significant challenges that call into question their relevance and effectiveness in the country's democratic system. Political parties are losing members in droves (e.g. the Socialist Party had 280,000 members in 2006 and 41,000 in 2023; Les Républicains had 238,000 members in 2015 and around 80,000 in 2023). Unions are getting sidestepped. And traditional parties are gradually being replaced by social movements. These developments have cast serious doubts on the role and sustainability of organized representation and mediation in France. These developments also reflect a broader trend of declining support for intermediaries in France, including low rates of unionization (which have hovered around 10% since the early 2000s [7.8% in the private sector], well below comparable European countries or the OECD average of 16%), and a continued decline in party activism.

The waning interest in political party engagement is coupled with mounting skepticism toward political parties (albeit not uniform across the political spectrum). A recent poll on French political parties found that Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National (RN) is currently the most popular, with 35% of respondents holding a favorable view. The Green party (EELV) led by Yannick Jadot followed closely behind at 34%. Coming in tied for third were Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing populist party La France Insoumise (LFI), the mainstream conservative Les Républicains (LR) and the Socialist Party (PS), each with around 30% positive views. Macron's liberal and centrist Renaissance party finished near the bottom of the pack at 28%.

Lastly, it is worth noting the growing prevalence of anti-intermediary discourse, championed by populist movements throughout Europe. These groups often seek to establish a direct link to the people, bypassing traditional intermediary channels, yet paradoxically seek to attract the most unionized electorate. But are intermediary bodies forever condemned to this current state of affairs? This observation must be nuanced for two reasons. We must first retrace their history, which goes back to the French Revolution, and then examine how the social, economic and technological changes of recent years have disrupted the way in which these bodies are structured and operate.  

The French Revolution : The Roots of Distrust

To fully grasp the situation in which intermediary bodies find themselves today, a historical perspective is necessary. As is often the case in France, the story began with a moment of rupture, the French Revolution. The Allarde Law of March 1791 and the Le Chapelier Law of June 1791 abolished corporations and guilds (associations formed by artisans and merchants, as far back as the Early Middle Ages, to regulate their trades and safeguard the interests of their members) and prohibited any kind of professional coalitions. The revolutionary ideal was off and running. The law now stated that "there are no longer any corporations in the state; there is only the interest of every individual and the general interest. No one is permitted to inspire in other citizens an intermediary interest, to separate them from the public good by a spirit of corporation".

A long period of deep-seated prejudices against intermediary bodies ensued. These entities became indelibly associated with the notions of castes, obstruction, and privileges that were left over from the age of feudalism and abolished on the night of August 4, 1789. France’s political DNA was forever altered, infused with "congenital Jacobinism" that results in a tendency to view any form of corporatism, delegation of authority or power-sharing with suspicion.

It did not take long, however, for the drawbacks of individualistic and disintermediated thinking to surface, which led to a gradual and often tumultuous recognition of the importance of intermediary bodies. This was driven by the need to ensure effective governance and maintain the continuity of the state. In the early 19th century, it quickly became apparent that the direct relationship between state and citizen had limitations that could only be addressed through intermediary institutions. Several legislative changes were needed before intermediary bodies were considered fully rehabilitated, including the Ollivier Law of 1864 that abolished the criminalization of coalition activity and legalized the right to strike and, later, the Waldeck-Rousseau Law of 1884 that officially authorized the creation of trade unions. Around the same time, freedom of the press and freedom of association were enshrined by law in 1881 and 1901.

As intermediary bodies regained recognition and influence in France, the country saw the gradual emergence of a diverse range of trade unions and the formation of the first political parties: The Radical Party was established in 1901, soon to be followed by the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO) in 1905, 15 years before the French Communist Party (PCF). The intermediary bodies and political parties that emerged during this time were instrumental in achieving many social and labor advancements during the first half of the 20th century. These include the 1936 Matignon Agreements (which introduced the election of union representatives, the right to collective bargaining, a 40-hour work week, paid vacation, and wage increases), the establishment of the National Resistance Council and subsequent creation of works councils and social security in 1945, and continued progress throughout the 1950s and 1960s such as the reduction of the work week to 39 hours, the expansion of social security, and the introduction of a minimum wage (SMIG). These developments culminated in the events of May 1968, which saw widespread protests and strikes calling for further reforms and social change.

The permanent discourse of decline

This pit stop through history was essential to better appreciate the dynamics and discourse of the present day. Through this lens, it becomes apparent just how much French political culture continuously seesaws between repudiating and embracing intermediary bodies since the end of the Ancien Régime. The historical overview also highlights the persistence of certain prejudices towards intermediary bodies, which have endured for over two centuries. But it also suggests that the attachment of French citizens to these institutions may be even older and more deeply rooted.

It is essential to adopt a nuanced approach and, at times, challenge or refute the narratives of decline, whose prophets often seem to suffer from selective amnesia. The issue of the survival and legitimacy of intermediary bodies appears to have been present since their very inception. This is true for political parties. As early as the start of the 20th century, Robert Michels (a former member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany) warned of the inherent oligarchic tendency of political parties and questioned their fate. This is also true for trade unions. In the 1980s, France witnessed the emergence of significant "coordination" movements that brought together various groups of workers, including nurses, teachers, and Air France employees. These movements bypassed what they perceived to be ineffective union channels and strongly questioned their efficacy.

The list of examples could go on. Another prominent example took place in 2018, with the emergence of the Yellow Vests. The grassroots movement raised serious questions about the future of trade unions in France, as it organized itself spontaneously through social media, circumventing traditional unions. According to statistics, the rate of unionization among French employees stood at 19.5% in 1975 before plummeting to 9.4% in 1993, only to slightly increase again to 10.1% in 2019. The "crisis", if it truly occurred, is more accurately traced back to the 1980s, closely tied to the increasing dominance of the service sector in the economy. This trend was further compounded by significant technological advancements in the workplace during the 2000s. The past 30 years have not been a period of crisis but stability.

These examples serve as a reminder that although they have often been called into question, intermediary bodies are still standing, and for good reason. Political parties are still the primary channel for obtaining political power. Trade unions are still the primary channel for promoting the interests of platform workers. The number of agreements being reached between companies and labor unions remains strong. In contrast, there has not been a single movement to emerge on Facebook that gained any lasting representative legitimacy. Trade unions, like political parties, are not immune to vulnerabilities and shortcomings. As society experiences ever-accelerating changes due to the triple whammy of social, economic, and technological transformations, unions must continually adapt and evolve to remain relevant and effective. Social unrest over the pension reform has even sparked a renewed interest in trade unions. The CFDT, for example, has seen an influx of over 30,000 new members since January. The recent appointment of two women at the helm of France’s two largest trade unions (Sophie Binet at the CGT and Marylise Léon at the CFDT) heralds a new era for trade unionism. This presents a unique opportunity for the labor movement to revitalize and diversify itself, both in terms of age and gender.

Politicians are participating in discourse that fuels the rise of populism

What is new today is not so much the discourse of crisis or decline, but rather the amplification of the declinist discourse itself and its instrumentalization by politicians. In 2016, before he became president, Emmanuel Macron was already a vocal critic of the perceived obstacles in French society caused by "corporations, intermediary bodies, and the political system". He declared that: "If speaking to the people or saying that the intermediary bodies are no longer doing their jobs, if that makes me a populist, then so be it – I’ll be a populist!" Did he become a populist? Has he always been one? We’ll leave that for others to decide.

One thing is certain. Promoting this type of talk fuels populist talking points that call for doing away with intermediaries, seen as obstacles between the sovereign people and their leader. Pierre-André Taguieff believes that populism is characterized by "hostility toward mediation" and "mistrust of representation: intermediate bodies, structured classes or ideologies, and formalized legal rules". For her speech on May Day to the party faithful in Le Havre, Marine Le Pen could be seen flanked by posters with the slogan "Power to the People", in perfect alignment with such rhetoric.


It is crucial to shift the discourse on intermediary bodies in France by reaffirming the central role that they play in democracy. Intermediary bodies represent, consult, and organize. They provide political outlets for movements, democratically build forms of transversality and experience-sharing, and bring invaluable expertise to the table. Intermediary bodies propose, negotiate, oppose, and placate. They are essential liaisons with civil society as well as the voice of civil society. To limit their role to serving as an opposition force, as highlighted during the pension reform protests, is not just reductionist but dangerous. The focus needs to shift elsewhere, in local constituencies, on the ground, and inside companies.

The government must facilitate these changes by being more open to listening and empowering others. When intermediaries are marginalized and relegated to a secondary role, they will not engage in political and social dialogue, instead resorting to the performative discourse of obstruction and inflexibility that ultimately fuels populism. But when empowered and entrusted with responsibility, they will do the exact opposite.


Copyright Image: Valentine CHAPUIS / AFP

A man holds a CGT flag during an inter-union strike by Tisseo employees, the public transport network of Toulouse and its region, in front of Toulouse town hall, southwestern France, on April 18, 2023. Employees are striking to maintain the safeguard clause within the framework of the obligatory annual negotiations.

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English