Thursday, 6 July 2017

The times they are a' changing

In his speech to parliament on Tuesday, laying out his legislative programme for the next five years, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, quoted “the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2017” when he said “ …how many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see”. I’m not sure whether Bob Dylan would approve of two lines of his 1960s anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” being used to illustrate a point about the French national debt, but be that as it may, France’s new two-headed executive has not been shy of displaying its literary references in the last few days.

In his much commented official portrait, a determined looking President Macron grips the edge of his desk and looks directly into the camera against the background of an open window. As we have been told at length in a “making of” published on the President’s Twitter account, but certainly wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, he chose to be photographed with one carriage clock, two smartphones and three books arranged artfully behind him: Stendahl’s novel “Le Rouge et le Noir”, De Gaulle’s “Memoires de Guerre” and André Gide’s “Nourritures Terrestres”, a hymn to hedonism and nature, written in a somewhat inaccessible style that is apparently one of his favourite books. We are invited to reflect on the fairly obvious symbolism of these choices.

On the same day, the French Court of Auditors released its “official” figures about the state of the French budget deficit and national debt. They reveal that the outgoing administration has left a hole of 8 billion Euros in this year’s budget, the equivalent, as the Prime Minister chose to put it, of the annual budget of the Ministry of Culture. It is nothing new of course for an incoming government to blame its predecessor for a much worse situation than originally thought. It burnishes its credentials for honesty and transparency and serves as a justification for more painful measures than those promised during the election campaign. This time however, the stratagem lacks credibility, as the 2017 budget was prepared in the middle of last year by a government in which Emmanuel Macron was the Minister for Economic Affairs until his resignation in July 2016. Just in time to escape carrying the can but too late not to know that the 2017 budget was being built on very shaky foundations.

This being said, the Prime Minister has pledged to bring the deficit, at least, back into line - under 3% of GDP - by the end of this year and go further in subsequent years. Just how he will do it remains unclear and his speech was not bursting with detail, to put it mildly. Most of the tax changes promised by Macron during his campaign have been postponed until the middle of 2018 and actual cuts until 2019. More money has been promised to boost low pensions, provide fast broadband services to the whole country and generally increase spending on strategic investments, but there is no timetable attached either. Even if the more tangible measures announced by the President in his strategy speech the previous day, like reducing the number of parliamentarians by a third and seriously pruning the useless but costly Economic, Social and Environmental Council, are implemented in the next two or three years, they too will have no immediate impact on spending. The Prime Minister simply stated that the civil service wage bill, almost 23% of public spending, will be reduced and that no budget nor type of expenditure will be taboo. Two possible interpretations of this dirth of detail: either this is the usual post election retreat and we shall see in five years time that little has been done and and that not much has changed, or Macron and his Prime Minister really mean business and will simply do what needs to be done without talking much about it, using their huge and pliant parliamentary majority to ride out any protest.

One of the significant areas that has been given no more than a passing mention by both the President and the Prime Minister, and that nobody seems to have picked up on so far, is pension reform. This is interesting as the candidate Macron presented some fairly radical proposals for merging France’s numerous pension schemes, effectively putting an end to the privileged pension provision enjoyed by civil servants compared to those working in the private sector. He gave voters to understand that this was an essential milestone on the road to meaningful reform. One commentator has timidly suggested that Macron might have come to a secret understanding with the unions in which they would not stand in the way of root and branch reform of the private sector labour market, in which their representation is minimal, in exchange for a pledge that he would not go too far too fast in shaking up the public sector, in which they are far stronger. Whether this is true or not, pension reform is no longer, apparently, an urgent priority It is true that many people still remember the unfortunate experience of Alain Juppé, of whom Edouard Philippe has been a close ally in the past. In 1995, the newly appointed Prime Minister promised, to a standing ovation in the Assemblée Nationale, a complete overhaul of public sector pensions, only to climb down ignominiously six weeks later as unions brought the country to a standstill. Maybe President Macron has concluded that the country can only stomach reform in small doses and that he should start with the labour market and see how that goes first.

With the elegant carriage clock in the official portrait supposedly indicating that he is the master of time, Macron may have another two lines of a Bob Dylan song, The Times they are a’ changing, going through his head as he contemplates the hard and painful choices that he cannot put off for much longer: “ ….don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin”.

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