Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Macron through the media spyglass

Having studiously avoided the kind of chumminess with journalists in which his two predecessors indulged with gusto, it could only be a matter of time before President Macron submitted himself to a set piece interview on prime time television as he did on Sunday night. Having watched it from beginning to end, my overriding impression was that neither Macron nor the media have changed much since the election in May.

Although the three journalists who questioned the President are among the most respected in their profession, none escaped the temptation of picking on the trivia of Macron’s first months in power. The tough language that he sometimes uses, we are told by the media and opinion polls, is what French people are most interested in.  His words however are often taken out of context. In a recent speech to the French expatriate community in Athens, for example, the President said:  “I am absolutely determined (to defend democracy and peace in Europe) and I shall yield nothing to cynics, slackers or extremists.” (“Je serai d'une détermination absolue et je ne cèderai rien ni aux fainéants,ni aux cyniques, ni aux extremes”). Although he was not referring directly to the reforms underway in France, the words, quoted out of context, were taken by the media to refer to his opponents, particularly the unions. More directly, in an unguarded moment during a recent visit to a centre for apprentices, Macron said that former employees of a doomed factory who were demonstrating outside, should “go out and look for work rather than stir up trouble” (a milder version of the colourful French expression: “foutre le bordel”) Lumping these two totally different utterances together, the journalists were eager to know whether he was intending to be insulting. Did he understand that many French people apparently did feel insulted or humiliated?  Macron remained calm, countered that he was not afraid of saying what he meant nor of expressing his thoughts forcibly. He made no apologies, apart from saying that he had the greatest respect for the French people.

Was he the President of the rich then, as many in the media and the opposition have tried to make out, after the announced emasculation of the wealth tax, now being debated in parliament? No, Macron said, he was not. The French would do well, he continued, to stop being jealous of success, financial or otherwise, that he preferred to see successful French entrepreneurs remain in the country, invest their wealth and create jobs rather than leave for more temperate tax jurisdictions, as many have already done. The facts would appear to bear him out. And, as some commentators have pointed out, the wealth tax, even in its best years, was largely symbolic anyway. By proposing to exclude financial assets from it, as well as introducing a 30% flat tax on all financial income, France is only returning to a level of taxation that prevailed before the big increases introduced by the previous administration. Macron, it would appear, is willing to invest some of his own political capital in telling the unvarnished truth, in an attempt perhaps to puncture some of the country’s more toxic myths and symbols. For even without a fully-fledged wealth tax, France is still, and will probably remain, one of the countries with the highest overall levels of taxation in the EU, itself an area of high taxation compared to the rest of the world.

On Monday the media were telling us that Macron had not convinced a majority of viewers about his reforms. That being said, five months into his presidency, he said very little that he had not said before: give a larger degree of freedom to successful individuals and businesses that create wealth and jobs, while targeting those who need most support and protecting the weakest and most vulnerable in society.  Against the background of an extremely complex and multifaceted system of social safety nets, many details of course have yet to be worked out. Some of them are only now starting to take shape and Macron briefly sketched them out:  upgrading the status of apprenticeships and increasing the number of apprentices; giving serious vocational training to those most in need of it, the under-qualified and long-term unemployed, very often the same people, rather than sprinkling resources over a variety of largely cosmetic short-term training courses; building more social housing by forcing social housing offices to stop hoarding the comfortable surpluses that some have accumulated and use them instead to build more housing units and lower rents, rather than supporting the upward spiral of rents by continuing to hand out large subsidies to tenants.

In all this, Macron continues to show “both a single mindedness and an inner solemnity” that Sophie Pedder aptly described in her recent special report on France for “The Economist” (September 30th). Macron was solemn, as he always has been, in his view of his mission to bring about a profound transformation of the country and his resolve not be put off by the current dip in his popularity ratings. Single-minded too in his oft-repeated mantra that people rather than jobs should to be protected and that they must be made fit to compete in a global economy that is changing a lot faster than old Europe in general and France in particular.

Questioned about how long it would take for this vision and its associated policies to produce visible results  (and not just a fall in unemployment, the yardstick by which François Hollande chose, unwisely, to be judged) he answered that it would take at least 18 months to two years.  

On the basis of Sunday’s interview therefore, it seems fairly safe to assume that Macron will continue to pursue his single-minded path and that, for the time being at least, the media will continue to see things through the small end of their spyglass.  One can only hope that within two years both will start to see the emergence of a bigger picture.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

"The French are always on strike!"

This morning on the BBC’s “Today” programme, that I listen to over breakfast, the veteran interviewer, John Humphrys, was asking a British economist why productivity in the U.K is so much lower than in many other countries. The economist pointed out that hourly productivity in France, for instance, is much higher, "because the French work harder when they are at work, even if they have a shorter working week and take longer holidays." To which Humprhys countered, only half jokingly, "but the French are always on strike, aren’t they?"

Well, as it happens, today they are. Or at least those who work in public services. This being said, public transport seems to be running more or less normally, hospitals will not be much disrupted and only schools and government offices seem to have closed down completely for the day. A number of street marches are planned throughout the country.

At first blush then, true to form. A closer look however, reveals a number of seemingly minor but interesting developments. First of all, the unions, traditionally strong in France’s generously dimensioned public sector, are not united in their protests today, as they so often have been in the past. The leaders of the three main unions will be marching separately in different parts of the country. One union leader has even gone on record as saying that street demonstrations are not perhaps the most effective form of union action. Secondly, as "The Economist’s" Charlemagne pointed out a few weeks ago ("Exorcising French demons"– "The Economist"  - September 9th), the rounds of intense discussion between union bosses and ministers during the summer holidays to prepare the labour market reforms that are now being implemented seem to have toned down, at the very least, the climate of confrontation that has so often characterised relations between unions and the government, as well as between labour and management in general. If all sides were now starting to realise that talking to each other far from the media spotlight is, after all, a better way of proceeding than carefully crafted one-liners destined for prime-time news or a show of force on the streets?

It’s early days yet of course, but there are other interesting signs that indeed, the climate may be changing. I was surprised for instance to hear this morning on France Info, the 24hr. news and current affairs station of the state broadcaster Radio France, the views of Laurent Bigorgne an economist at the head of a think-tank called the Institut Montaigne, renowned for its economically liberal views and often a mouthpiece for France’s business elite with a social conscience. It was unusual to hear its director general being interviewed on a radio station that generally bends over backwards not to rock the boat. It was even more unusual to hear him state a few home truths about public service workers that one hardly ever hears on the mainstream media. Why are salaries often lower in the public than in the private sector, the politically correct interviewer asked?  The answer, Bigorgne said, although the unions would never admit it, is that a deliberate choice has always been made to favour employment over pay, especially as one way of increasing it, namely salary increases and advancement based on merit, has always been taboo. He went on to say that, in any case, salaries are not the real problem in the public services. They suffer above all from a lack of proper management. Ask any public service worker in the street what they dislike most, he continued, and the chances are they will tell you that they have no clear idea of where their job fits into the general scheme of things and that it makes little difference whether they strive to do a good job or not. They would probably be much happier, he concluded, if they were properly managed.

I don’t think I am the only one who has rarely heard this kind of language before in the mainstream media. It reminds me not only of some of the cobweb-clearing statements by Emmanuel Macron, on whom Bigorgne is said to exert some degree of intellectual influence, during his presidential campaign but also of a conversation I had, long before Macron became a household name, with a leading executive of a large French listed company. He told me that he had started his career in the public sector but quickly became disenchanted when he realised that his ability to get things done was severely constrained by the lack of any real management culture, particularly in human resources.

For the moment, such sentiments are certainly not in the mainstream and little more than straws in the wind, but I suspect they go deeper than current political correctness would suggest.  If, however, they were to herald a gradual cultural shift about what the state should do and how best it can do it, they would indeed usher in profound changes to traditional French attitudes towards its public services. French people in general demand high levels of public service, lament their deterioration, in some areas even, their slow decay and applaud the generally high public service ethic of most civil servants. They would never accept, for instance, the kind of root and branch overhaul of the civil service that took place in the U.K under Margaret Thatcher or in countries like Canada, Sweden or Switzerland. If however the view started to prevail, particularly among those most directly concerned, that public services can be considerably improved by greater efficiency and better management and not just by more investment and higher salaries, then France would have embarked on a real path of reform that would surprise even the most die-hard believers in the myth that “the French are always on strike!”