Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Give him hell !

It is axiomatic that political leaders find it easier to make an impact on foreign policy than to shepherd through difficult reforms in their own country. France is no exception. Going back to the Chirac presidency that lasted a total of 12 years (from 1995 to 2007), Jacques Chirac will probably be most remembered for his dogged, and applauded, opposition to France’s participation in the American led invasion of Iraq than for anything he achieved at home – apart perhaps from abolishing compulsory military service. On his five-year watch, Nicolas Sarkozy introduced some minor reforms on universities and pensions but made a much greater impact on the European scene by his vigorous action to contain the financial and banking  crisis of 2007 and 2008. Even the hapless François Hollande showed greater decisiveness in dispatching French troops to fight terrorists in Sub-Saharan Africa than he ever showed on the domestic front. As for Emmanuel Macron, who passed the first anniversary of his election to the French presidency on May 7, it could be argued that he has already achieved as much on the international stage as his three predecessors in the last 20 years. His frenetic year of international and business diplomacy that I referred to in a previous post (“Looking outwards from Versailles” – February 6, 2018) has since been completed by a state visit to the United States and a trip to Australia. All this has put France fairly and squarely on the map again as the leading European power, actively involved in the crises of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa and talking to every world leader in the grand tradition of de Gaulle and Mitterrand. And the rest of the world has noticed. Despite the fact that domestic reforms are only just beginning, the single-minded determination to pursue them on the part of a youthful and energetic president has vastly improved France’s image as a country in which to live, invest and do business.  In an interview with America’s Fox News, in English, broadcast the day before his U.S. visit, Macron was asked whether there was any chance that he would back down on the contentious reform of the SNCF. His cryptic answer  - “No chance” -  was clearly meant for both international and domestic consumption (it was the only extract to be broadcast, with subtitles, on French prime time news). The sub-text was undoubtedly: “France has changed and I shall make sure that it continues to change”.

 All this being said, as the French saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!  (“The more things change, the more they stay the same”). On the domestic scene, many of the reforms that Macron’s government is implementing or in the process of introducing, have come up against predictable, and sometimes violent, resistance on the streets. Even if the strike at the SNCF seems to be petering out, it is far from over. Air France, which has also been strikebound for the past few weeks, has been dealt a nasty blow by the outcome of an ill-judged company-wide referendum on salary increases that attempted to go over the heads of particularly militant unions. The referendum was lost, the boss resigned and the very future of the airline is now in doubt. The financial daily “Les Echos” wrote the other day that both companies are slowly committing suicide by refusing to recognise that the world has changed.  The evacuation of Notre Dames des Landes  (“Cleared for take-off?” December 19,2017) has been more protracted than planned. A small number of universities are “occupied” and vandalised by a radical student fringe that seems intent on igniting another May 1968. And on top of these flash points, there is clearly a more diffuse feeling of discontent as reforms that were judged essential at election time are now starting to bite. Millions of pensioners are upset that their taxes have been raised to finance lower payroll taxes for those in work. Rural dwellers complain that in spite of Macron’s lofty declarations about reviving their communities, nothing has changed since May 2017. 

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vocal party, “La France Insoumise”, intent on styling itself as the main party of opposition, did its best to capitalise on these discontents by organising a “festive” demonstration called “La Fête à Macron” in Paris on May 6. According to a media count, about 40 000 people attended. The title of the demonstration was deliberately ambiguous. “La fête” evokes the idea of a party, festive and non-violent, in marked contrast to the violence that marred the traditional Mayday marches in Paris this year, but the underlying criticism becomes clear if one considers the other sense of “faire la fete à Macron”, a popular expression meaning: “give Macron hell!”

Such demonstrations are designed of course to catch the cameras and inspire headline writers. And so they do. The underlying aim was to portray Macron as a heartless leader with a background in the ultra-capitalist world of investment banking, a “President of the rich”, insensitive, in typical left-wing parlance, to the sufferings and anger of the poor, downtrodden and dispossessed. Opinion polls would suggest that the attempt has not been entirely unsuccessful. And as politicians are not in the business of offering a balanced view of their opponents’ policies, and the media rarely make it their business either, it is easy to forget that Macron’s government has also introduced measures to give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a better start in school, increased benefits for the handicapped, abolished some local taxes for the less well-off and engineered a radical overhaul of apprenticeships and vocational training. Not to speak of Macron’s own repeated willingness to talk plainly and directly to ordinary people: onlookers at remembrance day celebrations, farmers at the annual agriculture show, pensioners in provincial towns or the victims of a devastating hurricane in the French Caribbean islands last winter.

Political life will undoubtedly continue like this for some time yet, in the time-honoured French tradition, dotted with carefully choreographed presidential walkabouts and interviews, inflamed parliamentary debates and colourful street demonstrations, their impact measured in almost real time by the ever present pollsters.  The next opportunity to test public opinion for real will come with the municipal elections in two years time. Next year will see elections to the European parliament too, but voters, if they go to the polls at all, will be voting on questions that are somewhat removed from the bread and butter issues that affect their daily lives. By then, Macron’s policies will have produced some effects. Just what policies and what effects will be the subject of the next post.

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