To have a chance of cooling a red-hot dispute over plans to raise the retirement age, French President Emmanuel Macron can ill afford to ignore Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union.
As unions pushed on with more protests and strikes on Thursday, Berger cracked open the door to the possibility of discussions with the government, but on condition it make a gesture first.
"To avoid throwing salt on wounds, the president needs to put the reform on hold," Berger said at the start of a march through central Paris.
"That means withdrawing it, or putting off its application, it can mean lots of things," said Berger, flanked by other, more hardline union leaders.
Protests against the planned new law, which raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and also accelerates a planned increase in the number of years one must work to draw a full pension, have drawn huge crowds in rallies since January.
Last week Macron used unpopular constitutional powers to bypass lawmakers and push the measure through, a move that ignited a fresh round of protests.
Usually mild-mannered, Berger, 54, is openly furious that Macron left unheeded his past calls for broader talks about how to make the pension system fairer while ensuring it is economically viable.
In a rare television interview on Wednesday, Macron said he would stand firm and the law would come into force by the end of the year. But he also offered an olive branch, saying he was ready to discuss broader labour issues dear to the unions, such as wages in the lowest paid sectors, if they were willing too.
"We are open to discussion, contrary to what is said about us. But there's got to be a gesture," Berger said.
However, with nightly demonstrations in major cities, talks alone are unlikely to defuse the situation much, said Jean-Daniel Levy at pollsters Harris Interactive.
"Laurent Berger doesn't have everyone in the social movement behind him, we're seeing a lot of non-union members and youths," Levy said. "The key to the way out depends on what the president decides to do."
With 610,000 members, the CFDT is second only to the hardline CGT as France's biggest union, and is dominant in the private sector.
During Macron's first term, from 2017 to 2022, Berger was one of the few union leaders who was not opposed to the president's economic reform drive from the get-go and was willing to hear him out.
Unlike the other big unions, the CFDT did not fight Macron's first attempt to overhaul the pension system in 2019, which was eventually scratched due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Berger's CFDT refused at that time to join weeks of strikes by other unions, considering that the points-based pension system being proposed then was fairer and less opaque for workers.
"What makes Laurent tick is social justice," said Mylene Jacquot, head of the CFDT's public sector branch, adding that despite holding strong convictions Berger has the merit of listening to others.
Berger is seen as incarnating the independent spirit of the union, which takes pride in not blindly following any party or government lines, according senior CFDT officials.
Nonetheless, that does not prevent him from maintaining regular contacts with senior members of government. A source close to Macron's prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she regularly speaks with Berger.
First elected to head the CFDT in 2012, Berger was overwhelming elected last June for a final four-year mandate. Although he says he does not intend to remain as the union's leader to the end of the mandate, he dismisses suggestions he could enter politics.
"This isn't my last battle, I'll be a union activist for my whole life," Berger told Reuters.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Frances Kerry)