Since his election almost exactly a year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron has never ceased to surprise his compatriots and wrong-foot his political rivals. Two recent TV interviews, given a few days apart, provided another example of how he intends to disrupt the status quo to his advantage – both at home and on the international stage.
Two weeks into a three-month strike by the national rail network SNCF, called by the powerful, communist-led CGT trade union, Macron needed to convince the French public that his planned reform of the state railways was not an act of stealth privatisation but a necessary adjustment of an employment status dating back to 1920 (when train-driving was both physically strenuous and dangerous).
Today, around 150,000 rail workers in France benefit from a job for life, retirement at the age of 57 (compared to 62 nationally) and an array of benefits. Among these workers, train drivers are even better treated: they retire at 52 with free life travel or heavily discounted fares for their family and extended family (spouses, children and in-laws). Partly as a result, the state railways have amassed debts of €50bn. The French government is proposing to bail out SNCF in exchange for ending the existing employment terms for new workers (while maintaining them for current employees).
President Macron chose to give his first televised interview on the subject on 12 April at lunchtime in a primary school classroom in Normandy. Seven million viewers tuned in. The interviewer was polite, the exchange was civil and the unusual setting intrigued, amused and charmed the audience. Was Macron convincing? The strikes, which resumed later that evening, were not as well-attended as before. Are the unions already losing momentum?
Former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy sought previously to reform the state railways in 1995 and 2010. Both were forced to retreat after weeks of strikes paralysed the country (indeed, there has not been a strike-free year on the SNCF since 1959). They also capitulated because a majority of French voters, imbued with the spirit of the revolution, were unconditionally backing the trade unions.
But today is different. Macron knows this. So do the unions. Ultimately, the French alone will decide with whom they side: their inner rebel or their inner reformer?
The stakes are high for both sides and for the country. A recent opinion poll found that France was almost perfectly divided: a slight majority (52 per cent) backing the reforms and a large minority (48 per cent) supporting the strikers. Macron, who won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, has faced no greater challenge to his domestic authority.
Yet as the centre-right Républicains and the enfeebled centre-left Parti Socialiste have all but left the political stage, the only loud adversaries of the French government are at the extremes.
Both the far right and the far left are deploying the same arguments against Macron’s reforms. Front National leader Marine Le Pen (the runner-up in last year’s presidential election) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who finished fourth, are accusing the government of planning the full privatisation of the railways at the behest of the EU. They are playing on fears, weaving conspiracy theories, so that their voters see in Macron’s reforms the end of the French welfare system.
France spends more on social security than any other EU country (34.3 per cent of GDP compared to the EU average of 28.7 per cent). Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany all trail behind. With good reason, the French are deeply attached to their welfare state: its dismantlement is not proposed by Macron.
The inconsistency of the president’s detractors was rarely more apparent than during his second TV interview on the evening of 15 April. Unique in its format, this three-hour affair, staged at the Palais de Chaillot with the Eiffel Tower in the background, was broadcast on private news channel BFMTV. For once, the president had not received the questions in advance – a revealing encounter lay ahead.
But Edwy Plenel, a Trotskyist activist and founder of the powerful news website Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a talk show host on the popular Radio Monte Carlo, resorted to gratuitously attacking Macron and talking over each other without once destabilising the president. The French had to endure the sorry spectacle of populist journalism à la française, while their head of state emerged unscathed. Once again, Macron had challenged the norm, and prevailed.
Strikers who invoke the May 1968 évènements, in an attempt to galvanise the French workforce, are unwise to do so. Talk of a mai chaud (a May simmering with social anger) is at best hasty and at worst delusional.
Some French universities have been occupied and blockaded by radical leftist and anarchist students (partly in protest at more selective entry requirements). They have demanded the resignation of Macron and for student work to be automatically marked ten out of 20, ensuring undergraduates pass their exams while striking. Yet their filmed “general assemblies”, available on YouTube, should reassure Macron’s supporters. The students’ incoherent political message poses little threat to the government.
As so often before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow Macron. But there is now the genuine possibility that he may become the first French president in decades to beat “the street”.
Should Macron succeed, it will be due to his personal conviction and to his now-legendary luck. But it will also be due to the French people, who will have decided finally to trust him – at least for the time being.
Agnès Poirier is the author of “Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950”
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge