With his drooping moustache, shaggy eyebrows and open-neck shirts, Philippe Martinez looks like every Frenchman's idea of a communist trade union leader.
In April, Martinez (55) was confirmed as secretary general of the Confédération Générale de Travail (CGT), France’s oldest and largest trade union. Until the present crisis, he was virtually unknown.
Martinez, a former technician at Renault, joined the CGT in 1982. He headed the union’s steel workers section for seven years.
In just a few weeks, Martinez has become the de facto leader of left-wing opposition to the El Khomri law, which seeks to reform the labour code. The conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro calls him "the man who wants to bring France to its knees".
This is a war on the left, between neo-Marxists and liberal social democrats, in the language of protagonists, “social terrorists” against “social traitors”.
The CGT endorsed François Hollande in the last presidential election. Martinez now accuses Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls of "using the same methods as Nicolas Sarkozy" because, "faced with the struggle of workers, they send the forces of order to break strikes".
"When the CGT threaten the holding of the Euro 2016," says Le Monde newspaper, "we're reminded of the CGT, which in 1937 delayed work for the World's Fair."
With turnout for street demonstrations against the labour law dwindling, Martinez has adopted progressively more radical tactics: blocking petroleum refineries, repeated transport strikes and slowdowns at nuclear power plants.
Last weekend Martinez was photographed throwing a tyre on a fire at a CGT barricade – the sort of gesture trade union leaders usually avoid. He publicly supported the workers who literally tore the shirts off Air France executives in protests last October.
Left v left
The crisis over the labour law pits Martinez against Valls (53). Both men are the sons of Spanish immigrants; both are theoretically from the left. But Martinez is steeped in Marxist ideology, while Valls’s socialist credentials are often questioned.
It’s a fight to the political death, and it’s difficult to see how either could compromise or back down and survive. Martinez wants the total withdrawal of the law, which Valls refuses categorically.
“If you fight, you can win,” Martinez told militants blocking a petroleum storage facility. “But if you don’t fight, you’re certain to lose.”