Muriel Pénicaud – Candidate for ILO Director-General

As the last candidate to be interviewed, Muriel Pénicaud had a tough act to follow but held the advantage of having heard all the previous candidates before she was placed in the spotlight. She is the only candidate who has served as a Minister of Labor, where she oversaw a number of labor reforms domestically and supported President Macron at the G7 and OECD. Also, a large portion of her professional career has been in the business and global corporate world (e.g. Danone). She emphasized her deep commitment and experiences supporting tripartism and universal social protection.


Ms. Pénicaud’s approach on addressing informality was distinguishable in two important respects. First, she described it mostly in terms of the absence of social protections. The obstacles facing small and medium enterprises and the self-employed are related to their having no access to a socially protective framework. Second, she expressed the view that one should “dare to be innovative” on access to social protections. The ILO, she said, should link up with international development and financial institutions and with the OECD to support social protections and a legal framework for them. She also mentioned her work with the social partners at Danone where she spearheaded a universal social protection program across Danone’s supply chains globally, much to the consternation of Danone’s competitors. She defended this kind of application of due diligence to business and social responsibility, and she highlighted it as an example of her profound commitment to tripartism. At another point in the interview, she emphasized the importance of a regional focus on informality and of asking the social partners on the ground what they need to transition to the formal economy. And she concluded her interview by reiterating the challenge to the ILO to “dare to be innovative” on this issue of universal access to social protection.

Gender Equality

As with Ms. Kang, Ms. Pénicaud has a record of action to advance gender equity/equality. In Ms. Pénicaud’s case, this was illustrated by her having established a uniform new methodology for a gender equality index during her tenure as the French labor minister. This was a government regulation covering both pay and career development applicable to businesses in France.  At the ILO, she specifically mentioned that she had participated in the negotiation of the new standard on sexual harassment. And at the European level, she described being active in the promotion of equal pay for equal work. Globally, she supported President Macron in G7 initiatives, and she also worked on the planning committee for the Global Summit of Women that was held in 2021. While at Danone earlier in her career, she worked with opening up opportunities for women’s leadership in business. So she has a solid record on advancing gender equality.  Looking to the future, in her written statement, she describes herself “As a woman,” who is “determined to lead the fight for equal opportunities and the prohibition of all discrimination”.  She brought this up again in her closing remarks – seeking to be the first female director of the ILO to prove that “Women can do it”. While this specific identification of her gender as the basis for her personal commitment to gender equality can backfire on her, I can understand the difficulties we all face in getting past all of the social, cultural and psychological barriers to achieving gender equity.


Ms. Pénicaud’s articulation of her perspective on multilateralism is strikingly different from the stated perspectives of the other candidates. What she emphasized more than anything was the challenge of moving beyond “silos” to a “new global momentum of solidarity” for social progress. She described the need for a “global Alliance for a human-centered development, a “stronger collective commitment”.  The absence of any reference to competition among international organizations or, to defining the ILO mandate as distinct from any other mandate was noticeable. Yes, she confirmed, the ILO is at the center to decide which norms make sense for today and tomorrow, while other places are working on climate change or taxation or the like, but the priority for all, including the ILO, should be on advancing coherence of multilateral policies for a human-centered approach. A just transition to climate change, she said, is necessarily human-centered; and access to health and safety is human-centered.  But we are in the midst of a third “systemic crisis”, as she saw it (1919 and 1945 having been the first and second of these crises), calling once again for a “new social contract”.

The Normative Future

In general, Ms. Pénicaud showed her familiarity with world of work issues without necessarily engaging in the more technical details of the ILO’s normative system. All processes in the system are interactive, she said, and they need to be fully deployed. New standards may be needed where new challenges are emerging and where there is a convergence on the right framework – for example, in dealing with digital, climate change or demographic shifts. But it’s up to the constituents to decide. Ratifications are a problem, but ratification levels can be deceiving. And yes, there needs to be a “renewed dialogue” on the supervisory system “to boost trust”.  In contrast, though, when she was asked about the “right to strike” issue, she was quite emphatic in asserting that the right to strike, based on her personal experience, is clearly linked to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The right to strike might not “have a convention”, but it is linked to these rights. What is needed, then, is clarification of when there is a right to strike, and the ILO needs to make progress on this. Workers need it, she said, and Employers need a legal framework for fair competition. We all need “serenity and clarity”.

On another track, I note that Ms. Pénicaud’s experiences with corporate social responsibility came up a couple of times in the interview. She spoke about the changes in the traditional business model to support social and green agendas and rights to workers at the international level. Questions were raised about how to regulate the globalization of these practices and the disruptions to global supply chains that come from inadequate regulation. Ms. Pénicaud defended the application of “due diligence” principles at Danone while also acknowledging that the ILO is where decisions need to be taken about which norms make sense for today and tomorrow. She was also challenged regarding her participation in an initiative known as “the Global Deal” in which the French government became directly involved during her tenure at the ministry. This initiative has involved large multinational corporations and global labor union representatives but not any employer-oriented associations. Ms. Pénicaud defended the Global Deal for doing well as an information exchange but not for displacing the ILO or its social partners in any normative negotiations. This, she reiterated, is the ILO’s role, and tripartism is the heart of this organization.


“As a woman”, “dare to be innovative” and “tripartism is in my DNA.”

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