Think of Boston, not Berlin

Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries.

One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin. After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The dispute that ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the “seething Irish energy” of the union leader Jim Larkin.
 
On a recent trip home (I’m a Dubliner living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of the Irish Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy’s tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country’s education minister; he has been boasting about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.
 
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) wants science and maths to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an “explicit focus on enterprise” in higher education. Ibec’s objective here is to achieve a “well-skilled and flexible labour force”. Part of the flexibility being championed is that companies don’t have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.
 
Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the “Blueshirts” because of the party’s historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, Fine Gael fought the February 2011 election on a pledge to “burn the bondholders”. Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party’s manifesto.
 
The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland’s real masters – officials at the European Commission – told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.
 
Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo’s gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries. The Health Service Executive, which runs Ireland’s medical services, has had its budget cut by €3bn since 2008. The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with standards for childcare and cancer treatment.
 
A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that Ireland’s government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How can this be achieved at a time of austerity? The details remain fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme.
 
Mary Harney, the health minister between 2004 and 2011, once claimed that Ireland was “closer to Boston than Berlin”. The current “reforms” reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American free-market economist, also advocates that Ireland adopt universal health insurance with private firms in the driving seat. In his view, medical care is “a kind of luxury good”. Dublin is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.
 
I love going home to Ireland. However, when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.
 
David Cronin is the author of “Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War” (Pluto Press, £17.99) 
People make their way across a bridge over the river Liffey in central Dublin. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”