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3 August 2017

France’s housing aid row is the latest indication of Emmanuel Macron’s class problem

The poor, the jobless, the factory workers, the students: Macron has overlooked them all. It's been too long, and it may be too late

By Pauline Bock

This is the fourth in a series: “The Macron Con”, also called “Why Emmanuel Macron isn’t a liberal hero”. Each week, I’ll examine an area of the new French president’s politics that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

The best way to pay for one’s suit is to work. At least, that’s Emmanuel Macron’s belief: in May 2016, when he was still François Hollande’s economy minister, these were the new French president’s words to a man in a demonstration who complained about Macron’s wealth. To which the man replied: “But I dream of working, Mr Macron. All jobless people want to work.”

This wasn’t the first time Macron had showed contempt toward the jobless and the working class. It wasn’t even the second. Two years earlier, during his first radio interview as minister, he had talked about “illiterate” factory employees. In February 2015, he said that were he jobless, he “wouldn’t expect everything from someone else.” In early 2016, he claimed that “an entrepreneur’s life is often a lot tougher than an employee’s”. And during the presidential election campaign, while visiting the northern region of Pas-de-Calais in January 2017, the then-candidate Macron regretted that “alcoholism, tobacco addiction and school failure have prevailed in the district.” Pas-de-Calais is one of France’s poorest regions and the fact that it has struggled economically since its mines closed is a reality. However, Macron’s comments relied on common clichés of the jobless and those with precarious lives.

When criticised, Macron doubled down by professing his down-to-earth attitude. “When an area is pauperising, its locals are hit hard. Emmanuel Macron, consistent with his will to name things as they are and to face reality, will not take back one word he has said,” a press release read on his Facebook page shortly after the Pas-de-Calais comments. “Macron is trying to pass his disdain for honesty” was left-wing newspaper L’Humanité’s headline.

Indeed, Macron tried to “face reality” a few months later, when he talked to the employees of a closing factory, between the two rounds of the presidential election. Marine Le Pen, popular among working-class voters, had just taken selfies with the crowd. Macron got booed. He engaged in a respectful dialogue, but to the ones who would lose their jobs in the closure, he had no real answer.

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A few months later, elected president, he compared the world to a train station: a place “where one can cross paths with people who succeed and people who are nothing”. Ironically, he said this during the inauguration of France’s biggest “startup hub” in Paris. The metaphor spoke for itself.

A poster-child for the self-made man, Macron likes to remind his political opponents than unlike most of France’s old generation of politicians, he has held a “real job” (he was a banker with Rothschild). But the abysmal gap between the situations of a Whirlpool employee and an investment banker seems lost on him. Socialists have called his attitude “mépris de classe” (contempt for class), and when French parody news website Le Gorafi published a fake quote from Macron saying that he felt “dirty all day” after shaking hands with poor people, the joke went viral and passed for real.

It’s not just the poor whose reality Macron seems to struggle to grasp. It’s the youth, especially the student population. In March 2017, he demonstrated his somewhat questionable conception of a low income – “I know what it’s like to make ends meet, I’ve lived on €1,000 a month when I was a student”. He has also shared his hope that “more young people dream to become billionaires.”

Read more: The Macron Con #3: Emmanuel Macron’s businesslike media strategy is worrying the French press

In July, this lack of understanding culminated in a row with students’ unions. The government announced it was cutting €5 from all housing aid known as “APL” from October. Assigned to household incomes lower than €1,000, APL can cover up to half of a student’s rent. The government said the measure would help to decrease high rents, but student unions were quick to disagree. “It didn’t take two months for the government to attack students’ budget,” said students group FAGE. “The government is pickpocketing those who can’t defend themselves,” said the leader of the Socialist parliamentary group. The government’s spokesperson replied that “all studies show the current housing aid system makes rent prices go up” and that it should be reorganised. “If you’re 18, 19, 20, 24 and you start crying because we take €5 from you, what are you going to do with your life?” complained Claire O’Petit, an MP for Macron’s party La Republique en Marche (LREM).

For some, €5 isn’t much. But it’s exactly the ones for whom it is – the jobless, the students, the factory workers – who have been overlooked by Macron and his team over and over again. Due to the threshold system, the measure is expected to see 50,000 people lose all housing aid, equivalent to more than €200 per year.

Housing organisations such as Fondation Abbe Pierre have warned that the measure will put the poorest at risk. “It will reinforce tensions between the well-off and the precarious,” Jean-François Buet, president of the national housing union, told Liberation. “For the two-thirds of the people who get this aid, the cuts will increase the part of the budget they don’t have,” Bernard Devert, president of a non-profit fighting poor housing, wrote in a Le Monde editorial. To the journalist Titiou Lecoq, this is the “setting up of an explosive situation.” In an opinion piece titled “It is one’s inalienable right not to want a shitty life,” she wrote: “Politicians (…) think poor people will be better off with a miserable job than without, that they’ll always find a way to live with five less euros. All it takes is to tighten your belt a bit more, right? And the poor, they only have to stop eating at McDonald’s, or stop smoking, or stop placing bets. The current speech tends to blame poor people who spend a little more than what is needed for their strict survival. (…) But what this government doesn’t seem to understand, it’s the inalienable right not to want a shitty life. To want something else than living among bills. To want another horizon than the end of the month’s overdraft.”

Macron has since called the APL cuts “a massive screw-up”, but the cuts will go ahead in the fall. As more reforms follow, including the modernisation of France’s labour laws, Macron may have to realise that there are more “people who are nothing” than people who “succeed” and that you should try to accommodate both. That is, unless you want the situation to explode, or to slowly deteriorate until a political rival, whose voters you overlooked, comes back at the next election.