Sunday, 25 June 2017

Sparks begin to fly

Little did I suspect when I wrote that I hoped François Bayrou would do no harm as the Minister of Justice (“Putting his best foot forward” – May 22) that the only harm he would do would be to himself! This week, he resigned from the government, only a month after taking office, following the resignation of two other ministers and members of his party, MoDEM. We are told that he remains on good terms with President Macron. The reasons for his resignation say as much about him and his career as a party leader as it does about the shifts in public opinion.

The reason for his resignation was the opening of a preliminary judicial investigation into allegations of fiddling European Parliament allowances. Six members of his MoDEM party were elected to the Parliament in 2009. Bayrou was not one of the six but at the time he was, and still is, the leader of his party.  Each MEP is entitled to three parliamentary assistants to help with work on European affairs and each is paid about €7800 a month. With such generous allowances, it is of course tempting for any leader of a national party to use some of the money to pay party employees in the home country, in this case France, to discharge normal party duties that have little or nothing to do with European affairs. This is precisely what Bayrou’s party is accused of. One of the six MEPs, Corinne Lepage, a former minister and respected lawyer specialised in environmental matters, later resigned from the party and explained in a book (“Les Mains Propres”  - Editions Autrement, 2015) how the party had deliberately diverted EP allowances in this way and that Bayrou not only knew about it but actively encouraged it in order to inject much needed funds into the party’s coffers. Curiously, her book went more or less unnoticed at the time, by the media at least. It was only this year, with the presidential election campaign in full swing, that Marine le Pen, another former MEP who is also accused of fiddling allowances, denounced other parties in France, including MoDEM, for doing the same. The media suddenly started taking an interest. This past week, following the routine resignation of Edouard Philippe’s first government after the parliamentary elections, in the expectation that it would be immediately re-appointed, the Minister of Defence, Sylvie Goulard, former MEP and member of MoDEM, who had made a promising start to her ministerial career, surprisingly ruled herself out of the new government, stating that she wanted to be free to defend herself in the allowances investigation and claiming that she had always acted in good faith as an MEP. This was apparently a coded message to her MoDEM colleagues that she would not cover the party’s misdeeds and that if the investigation went further, she would say exactly what she had been asked, or obliged, to do by her party’s leadership. This statement clearly put pressure on Bayrou himself who, ironically, was about to present draft legislation on greater transparency and integrity in public life!  (la moralisation de la vie publique). He chose, naturally enough, to fall before he was pushed, together with his No. 2, Marielle de Sarnez, who had also been appointed a minister in the same government, and who is one of the six MEPs accused of fiddling.

Whether the preliminary investigation leads to Bayrou himself being placed under formal investigation  (mis en examen) or not, this whole episode shows that public opinion is increasingly intolerant of politicians who fiddle their expenses or otherwise abuse their privileges. I wrote in a previous post (“The slow revenge of Eva Joly” – March 22) that France is now moving slowly but surely towards more Nordic standards of public life. The latest events are likely to speed things up. As a journalist stated very aptly on the radio this morning, just a few years ago a minister would only have to resign if he was actually convicted of fiddling expenses or tax evasion. More recently, ministers placed under formal investigation have been expected to resign. Thanks probably to the attitude of François Fillon, who said that he would no longer be a candidate for the presidency if he were placed under formal investigation but then did the opposite when he was, public opinion has shifted even further. This time, three ministers have resigned only after being named as suspects in a preliminary investigation. An opinion poll taken two days after Bayrou’s resignation shows that nearly 60% of respondents consider he has done the right thing. Inasmuch as President Macron is thought to be behind it, it has not done his approval ratings any harm either.

The legislation on more transparency and integrity in public life will now be taken up by the new Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, a respected legal practitioner, sometime local politician and member of the French Constitutional Council, little known outside her profession. As Emmanuel Macron continues to stoke the fires of his peaceful revolution, the sparks are beginning to fly in all directions. The labour unions will probably be the next to feel the heat…. but then that is a story that is yet to be told.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Harder times ahead

A faithful reader of this blog has posted a number of comments about my last post ("A poisoned chalice" - June 13). I am most grateful for comments as they always give me food for thought, as well as a good peg on which to hang a few more points about the first round of the parliamentary elections, particularly the rate of abstention and the fact that most of Macron’s babes are political novices.

On the rate of abstention first. The first thing that struck me last Sunday was the fact that nobody I met, including officials at the polling station, seemed very electrified by the process. There was definitely no sense of anticipation that you sometimes feel in the air on election day, as there was, for instance, in the first round of the presidential election in 2007, when there were high hopes that Nicolas Sarkozy would be the man to put an end to 15 years of drift. This year, the big surprise was Emmanuel Macron’s score in the first round of the presidential election on April 23. Since then, mainly thanks to his highly skilled handling of unfolding events, there has almost been a sense of inevitability about them: getting the best of Marine le Pen in the TV debate, winning the presidency, the inauguration, first appearances on the international stage, the appointment of the government, the rise of his own political party and the disarray and even disintegration of the traditional ones. However difficult it was to predict all of these things at the outset, observing French politics over the last two months has almost been like watching a famous violinist playing a fiendishly difficult concerto or a pole-vaulter effortlessly clearing a two meter hurdle – they make it look so easy!  Little wonder that “The Economist “, on its cover this week, described Macron as “Europe’s saviour” and pictured him walking on water whereas Theresa May had sunk below the surface with only her shoes emerging!

One explanation for the high rate of abstention last Sunday is therefore that a lot of election-weary voters considered the parliamentary elections as more or less a formality. Many of those who bothered to turn out simply wanted to give Macron a boost and many of those who didn’t felt that there was little point in voting for an opposition destined to have little power in parliament anyway. Between the two of them, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who have expressed the most hostility to Macron and his policies, lost about four million votes between the presidential poll and last Sunday.

This overall impression is reinforced by my experience in my own constituency. I went to the public meetings of two candidates, one from LREM, and one from the Les Républicains, the party that, in its various guises, has held this seat in every parliamentary election since 1958. It selected a new but serious candidate, a personal friend and political ally of the Prime Minister and Alain Juppé’s former chief of staff. He was endorsed by all six local mayors. In his meeting, attended mainly by local worthies, he was clear and honest about the strategic difficulties facing his party and spoke of the need to co-ordinate parliamentary business with that of the local authorities. Whatever one’s political views, he came across as well qualified and well placed to be a good constituency MP. Last Sunday he polled not quite 23%, an unprecedented low watermark in this constituency for a candidate of his political persuasion

In stark contrast to this low-key public meeting, that of his LREM rival was more grandly organised, well attended and featured some nationally known figures. The talk was about Macron’s victory, his vision, and the need for a new departure. Points were made about climate change, renewable energies and Europe, none of which sounded more ground-breaking than an endorsement of motherhood and apple pie. They were dutifully applauded. Hardly a word was spoken about constituency matters, apart from a few bland sentences, like the need for more car sharing to avoid traffic jams at rush hours. Last Sunday, the candidate polled just over 48%, the best first-round result for the centre-left since 1958. He will no doubt be elected to represent the constituency this coming Sunday.

In France, it must be noted though that the role of an MP is not exactly the same as that of a constituency MP in the U.K. Listen to any member of the House of Commons, as I did to Jeremy Corbyn this week in his first speech to the House after the U.K. elections, and it is clear that he considers himself, together with his fellow MPs, as first and foremost the representative of his constituents. In France by contrast, MPs are called députés and are considered as “representatives of the assembled nation”  (“représentants de la nation assemblée”) as stated in the States General convened by Louis XVI in 1789, to which much of France’s modern political history and phraseology can be traced. Even if they are elected from a constituency, representing its interests is seen as a secondary matter to participating in the framing of legislation and monitoring the government of the day.

In this sense, the voters of my constituency, as well as those of countless others throughout the country, are being entirely consistent by sending to the Assemblée Nationale a député who represents a fresh political outlook more than  narrower political interests. As Emmanuel Macron has radically changed the political outlook for the next five years, it seems natural that, under the French system, voters should give him the parliamentary majority to underpin it. In any event, the opposition parties will take some time to reorganise themselves. Many of their supporters feel confused and disoriented  - a further reason for the high rate of abstention last Sunday and probably an even higher one this coming Sunday. 

The fact that the newly elected députés will represent the whole nation does not however give them instant and automatic knowledge of how parliament works. Which is why I have not been the only one to describe them as political novices. This is not meant to be derogatory. There is a lot to be said for new blood and fresh thinking in the somewhat stale Assemblée Nationale, but the government is probably right to consider that the controversial nitty-gritty of labour market reform is not an issue on which they should cut their parliamentary teeth. Some of the new MPs will learn fast, others will find the going tough. And inevitably, with a large number of seats under a single banner, they won’t all have the same views and factions are likely to form. After five years, some may end up joining whatever emerges from the centre-right realignment; others may go the other way and rejoin a rejuvenated Parti Socialiste. Whatever happens, the next five years will be fascinating to observe.

At the end of the period, if Macron’s ideas are implemented as announced, many will come to the end of their short parliamentary career as the number of MPs will be cut by about half. In addition, those who do stand for election to the next Assemblée will do so on the basis of a new voting system that will include a dose of proportional representation.

On Tuesday of last week, the French soccer team beat their English rivals in a friendly match in Paris. The French team scored the winning goal in the second half, even after one of their players had been sent off. It was an impressive and stylish performance. President Macron, watching the match with Prime Minister May, must have relished the victory, as proof of what Team France can achieve when it puts its mind to it. Might he have pondered a more symbolic significance as well? Whether he did or not, the French soccer team, for all its panache last Tuesday, is a long way from qualifying for the World Cup in 2018. Macron is only at the beginning of his campaign to reform France. Let the hard times roll!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Poisoned chalice ?

There is little doubt in most peoples’ minds that Emmanuel Macron scored a magnificent victory in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The mainstream media have been falling over themselves to find every possible synonym for “triumph”. “Macron sans opposition”, screamed a banner headline in “Le Monde “. The FT morning briefing on Monday was titled: ”Macron wins big”. The precise number of seats in the Assemblée Nationale won by candidates from his party, La République en Marche (LREM) allied with François Bayrou’s party, Modem, will not be known until after the run-off votes next Sunday, June 18. But it looks fairly certain that it will largely exceed 400 (out of 577), a very comfortable majority indeed.  Les Républicans, who have paid the price for their divisions over strategy, will end up with around 100 seats and the Parti Socialiste has been pulverised. Those former members of the party who stood under the Macron banner of LREM have come off well, whereas those that didn’t have faced intense competition from the more radical left-wing rebel party, La France Insoumise (LFI) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Many former ministers and senior party officials have been ousted in the first round of voting, submerged by the on-going shock waves unleashed on April 23. In his much lauded rise to power, it has now become clear that Emmanuel Macron’s stroke of genius was to see, before anyone else, that the traditional parties of the left and, to a lesser extent, the right were so worn and torn that he just needed give them a powerful shove at the right moment to see them keel over and collapse in a heap.

Does all this mean that he will now have a free hand to reform the French economy by pushing through the bold programme that he has promised the country?  In the light of the consummate political skills he has shown so far, he may very well bring it off.  But a few words of caution are undoubtedly necessary.  

The first point to make is that turnout on Sunday was a measly 50%, the lowest for parliamentary elections since 1958. It suggests, among other things, that voters basically followed the institutional logic of the fifth republic: most of those who turned out considered that Macron should be given the parliamentary majority he is seeking and voted, almost automatically, for the candidates of his party, while many others felt that the outcome was a foregone conclusion and that there was little point in turning out to vote for the opposition.  Either way, it does not amount to a massive endorsement of his reform programme, at best an indication that voters are willing to give him a chance to do what he has pledged do. Naturally enough, little detail has yet been revealed, particularly on labour market reform.

When such detail emerges, it is unlikely to be scrutinised by a freshly elected lower house, largely populated by political novices with little or no knowledge of parliamentary procedure. The government has made it clear that, in order to expedite this first major reform initiative, it will simply ask parliament to approve enabling legislation and proceed further through the equivalent of executive orders (ordonnances). If this procedure is followed, most of the detailed measures will be drafted by civil servants and signed off by ministers, presumably with substantial input from trades unions. Parliament’s role will be minimal. Even if objections to the procedure are raised in the Senate, the membership of which has not been changed in the slightest by Sunday’s elections, it can only propose amendments that both the government and the lower house are constitutionally entitled to ignore.

If there is any serious opposition to whatever measure are put forward, recent history suggests that it will come only from the streets. In this respect, there is an interesting parallel with the 1993 parliamentary elections, that gave a similar, 472 seat, majority to a coalition of right-wing and centre parties. The President of the time, François Mitterand, was obliged to appoint a right-wing Prime Minister, the patrician Edouard Balladur, who interpreted his majority as a green light for bold reforms designed to ..........reduce high youth unemployment!  His labour minister attempted to introduce what was called an “initial labour contract” (contrat d’insertion professionnelle), aimed at young, first-time job-seekers. Under the proposals, they were to be offered a labour contract that employers could terminate at their discretion within two years while paying only 80% of the minimum wage. A wave of protests and street demonstrations by a united front of unions, university and high-school students forced the government to withdraw the proposals a few months later. Since then,  two similar initiatives have have been attempted by different governments and have met a similar fate for similar reasons. The conclusion that must be drawn is that in France, the size of a parliamentary majority is irrelevant in the face of a combined front of unions and students that is visibly, vocally and sometimes violently opposed to it. Nearly twenty-five years later, unemployment among young people is still stubbornly high.

Emmanuel Macron and his government must be keenly aware of these precedents and, one hopes, determined not to make the same mistakes again.  At least one member of LREM must have had all this in mind when he said (quoted by “le Monde”) during a victory celebration on Sunday evening: “the risk is that if there is no opposition in the Assemblée, it will eventually be expressed in the streets!”

There is no doubting the political skills that Emmanuel Macron has displayed in conquering and consolidating power. The next big question is whether he will be able bring the same powers of persuasion to bear on the exercise of power and overcome the many and varied forms of opposition that will rise to challenge him. In summary, will he be able to do not only better, but a lot better, than all the governments of the fifth republic since the onset of the economic crisis at the beginning of the 1970s?  We should know within a few months whether this talented young President is able to extract a magic potion from a potentially poisoned chalice.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Punitive ecology

In Donald Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the U.S.A from the Paris climate agreement, much applauded by his captive audience and much decried by the rest of the world, one sentence struck me particularly: “I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States - which is what it does”.

The idea that measures to reduce pollution and protect the environment are in some sense “punitive” is not new. In fact it reminded me of similar ideas expressed in France no more than 3 years ago by Segolène Royale, François Hollande’s erstwhile partner and, at the time, newly appointed Minister for the Environment: L’écologie ne doit pas être punitive” (ecology must not be punitive) she declared, putting a brave face on the government’s decision to abandon, in the face of popular protest, a toll for lorries using France’s highways, called the “ecotaxe”.

The initial idea was in line with what many of France’s neighbours have long since introduced, a special toll on heavy lorries using their roads, as a compensation for environmental pollution that all diesel powered lorries produce as well as increased wear and tear. The French government announced that it was introducing a similar scheme for the same reasons and that it would be operated through a series of automated toll gantries set up along main roads. The scheme was to be managed by a special purpose company. Many French regions applauded the move. Alsace and Lorraine for instance were particularly happy, given that many lorries heading North or South deliberately used French roads to escape the tax they would otherwise have to pay in Germany and Switzerland. Only Brittany objected, but it objected strongly. Road haulage firms, their representative organisations and farmers’ unions all claimed that the tax was unfair to Brittany because their largely agricultural region is a long way from Paris and would be disproportionately "punished". When the government showed no signs of backing down, the Bretons started to organise street demonstrations, sabotaged some gantries and in a stroke of genius that caught immediate media attention, took to wearing red phrygian bonnets, (“les bonnets rouges”) a powerful symbol of the reign of terror in 1794.

As happens so often in France, whenever there is a whiff of revolution in the air, threatening to bring more people out on the streets and the country to a standstill, the government eventually did back down and announced the suspension of the “ecotaxe”. It was on this occasion that Segolène Royal uttered her famous phrase. It may not have been punitive for Brittany, but it was a very different story for the French taxpayer, as the government eventually had to write off about €1 billion that had been invested in the gantries, the technology, the toll collecting company, salaries and ultimately, winding-up costs and severance pay.

Since 2014 of course, the reality of climate change has become increasingly evident and the need for concerted measures more urgent. In December 2015, the landmark Paris climate agreement was signed. Whatever each country has committed to in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that all governments are going to have to make difficult choices that will impinge on lives and livelihoods. Politicians who claim that they cannot countenance tough measures because they are “punitive” are only shirking those hard choices and are knowingly sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term political advantage. This is surely one of the components of populism, of which Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, Segolène Royal can rightly be accused.

More forward-looking politicians are less afraid of popular opposition. Anne Hidalgo, the mayoress of Paris, is also readily accused of “punitive ecology” for closing a major artery along the Seine in Paris to motor vehicles and banning older cars from the city during rush hours. But, advised by a deputy for transport who is from the Green party, she has stuck to her guns. This being said, it has become increasingly clear to all that there are far too many motor vehicles in Paris at any one time for the good of peoples’ health and that of the planet. Anyone who regularly walks through the city’s streets cannot help being struck by the air and noise pollution, the endless queues of idling vehicles at traffic lights and the frequent gridlock at major intersections. And this, it should be noted, in a city which has one of the best public transport networks in the world. The Paris authorities have not yet gone so far as to publicly envisage road pricing but it will surely come one day, as it has to other cities in Europe and the rest of the world.

Even in France, where public opinion is often slower to evolve than in countries with a reputation for greater pragmatism, there is a growing realisation that enough is enough. As the years pass, environmentally friendly policies will slowly but surely come to be more applauded than decried and the phrase “punitive ecology”, it must be hoped, become as out-dated as the stagecoach.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Me and Ahmed down by the schoolyard

As I was walking home from the gym yesterday, I passed a downtown primary school just as parents were collecting their children for the lunch break. All the colours of the rainbow were represented in the schoolyard, with the rainbow veering definitely to the darker side. Not surprisingly, this was reflected in the group of waiting parents: at a glance some European, some North African, including three mothers wearing headscarves, Sub-Saharan African and Asian. Impossible of course to tell who was French and who wasn’t, but the majority was clearly of foreign origin, even if their children were probably born in France.  Walking home after lunch, I passed a primary school in the upper part of town where a group of children, definitely on the lighter side of the rainbow, were being taken out on an excursion.

I don’t know how typical these scenes are of the western suburbs of Paris, but a friend of mine who runs an after-school centre for primary school and junior high school kids gave me some clues. Although our town passes for being well off, it is also home to people who struggle to make ends meet, many of them recent immigrants, and it has its requisite quota of 25% of public housing in the total housing stock. She tells me that of the 100 or so children she and her colleagues help with homework and other after-school activities, 80 are of foreign origin and one year she counted 27 different nationalities of origin, a large proportion originally from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, quite a few from Eastern Europe, some from Western Europe and some from Asia. Not many, as yet, from the swelling ranks of refugees from Irak or Syria.

During his campaign for the French Presidency, Emmanuel Macron promised that the French education system would concentrate more resources on primary schools, reducing class sizes to no more than twelve, whereas today they can be twice as large. And this on top of an existing scheme to assign two teachers to large classes. The problem is that this type of arrangement only benefits schools in areas deemed in need of special funding. In the Paris area this applies mainly to schools in areas with very high immigrant populations like the northern suburbs, but not to well-off suburbs like this one, which, as I wrote in a previous post, has returned an orthodox right wing MP to the Assemblée Nationale since 1958. As my friend remarked ironically: “kids from poor backgrounds are better off in poor areas than in rich ones!”

What this translates to in our town is that some primary school classes are far too large. Teachers do not take long to identify children who have serious difficulties with reading, writing and basic arithmetic in their first year of primary school.  They are clearly the ones who need early help. They often come from single parent families where French is not the first language and even if it is, communication within the family and with relatives and neighbours is minimal. If primary school cannot, for lack of teachers, give extra support to these children, if their initial difficulties are not tackled at this stage, they are constantly struggling and can easily enter the collège (a non selective junior high school) at 12 or 13 with serious learning deficits. From then on, they are in danger of becoming early dropouts or, at best, leaving school at the age of 16 with no qualification.

The French education system prides itself on being meritocratic and there are enough examples of children who have benefitted handsomely from it to prove that this reputation is still justified. In his first speech on taking office, Gérald Darmanin, the new budget minister referred with pride to his humble background as the son of a cafe owner and a cleaning lady and the grandson of an Algerian infantryman who fought in the French army. There are many others like him. But there are also many who, for lack of support at home or in school, fall through the net and end up unqualified and unemployed.  Successive waves of early 20th century immigration from Poland, from Italy and elsewhere have been successfully integrated into French society in the space of one or two generations, largely through school, but there has perhaps never before been such a large number of relatively recent immigrants from such a large variety of countries. And the pressure is unlikely to let up.

If Emmanuel Macron and his government wish to uphold France’s record in integrating immigrants from all parts of the world, the obvious place to start is primary school. But that means being pragmatic about the areas, towns and individual schools that deserve special support schemes. Apart from any other consideration, the investment could pay huge dividends if more children are helped to realise their potential and don’t end up in 10 to 15 years time as school dropouts living off benefits or worse. Unfortunately, politicians don’t always look so far ahead!