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French union leader to quit over ‘bling bling’ scandal

Thomas Samson, AFP

The leader of France’s most powerful trade union, the General Confederation of Labour or CGT, has tendered his resignation following damaging reports of lucrative perks linked to his appointment in March 2013.

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Thierry Lepaon, 54, offered to resign on Tuesday, along with all eight other members of the union’s executive board.

Their mandate is now in the hand of the CGT’s parliament, which is widely expected to accept their resignation in a bid to end a crisis that has roiled the left-wing union.

The scandal had been festering since November, when satirical French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported that Lepaon had used €130,000 of union funds to renovate an apartment near Paris rented on his behalf by the CGT.

Subsequent media reports claimed tens of thousands of euros of union money had also been spent on renovating Lepaon’s office, leading some to accuse the austere union leader of secretly enjoying a “bling bling” lifestyle.

The scandal reached breaking point in December when a report by French daily L'Express revealed that Lepaon received €100,000 of “severance pay” for leaving a local CGT chapter when he became the union’s national leader.

Though there is nothing to suggest the payment was illegal and Lepaon denies wrongdoing, the significant sum and the fact that Lepaon received severance pay from an organisation he never actually left raised more than a few eyebrows among union members.

It was particularly damning for an organisation accustomed to railing against the fat cat salaries and “golden parachutes” granted to the bosses of France’s top companies.

‘Indefensible and repugnant’

Jean-Pierre Mercier, the CGT delegate for the car giant PSA Peugeot Citroën, publicly called for Lepaon’s resignation last month, saying his position had become untenable.

His actions are “indefensible and repugnant for all the company activists who every day battle on behalf of employees against employers, those who are on the front line, in the trenches”, Mercier told radio station RTL.

Earlier this week, the CGT’s highly respected former boss Louis Viannet added his voice to the chorus of union members calling for Lepaon to step down, saying the embattled leader had “lost credibility, both inside and outside [the union]”.

The scandal has exacerbated internal divisions within the CGT, which is torn over how best to fight the government’s pro-business economic and labour reforms designed to appease France’s EU partners and help reduce the country's deficit.

It has also undermined the organisation’s credibility at a time when it is struggling to retain its place as France’s most prominent trade union.

The CGT has been steadily losing ground to the rival CFDT union, a trend confirmed in last month’s union elections. Though it still came first with 23.1 percent of the vote, its share was 2.3 percentage points lower than in 2011.

An Ifop poll published on Sunday showed that 63 percent of French voters had a negative opinion of the CGT, up from 48 percent last year.

If, as expected, Lepaon’s resignation is confirmed next week, he would become the first CGT leader to be forced out since 1909.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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