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The heir to Blair? Macron is more like the French Thatcher

The French president’s agenda of tax cuts and privatisation is actively corrosive to the progressive dream of Europe.

Real political incompetence ought to be understood not in terms of the ministerial bumbling of The Thick of It, or the gaffes that make momentary headlines, but in terms of mass self-delusion.

Tony Blair’s interventions into the public debate on Brexit do not lack eloquence, they lack self-awareness. When Labour’s centrists attempted to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2016, they did so under the delusion that their triangulating politics could capture the support of members and the wider public. As the centre falls out of politics, many still cling to its false certainties.

In May last year, the dream of a centrist comeback was given a major boost with the election of Emmanuel Macron in France. Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell, now editor-at-large of the New European magazine, praised his “energy and confidence and conviction”. Painting himself as the liberal, pro-European antithesis to Marine Le Pen of the National Front, Macron came to power on a momentary wave of optimism about breaking free from the Socialist and Republican parties, winning big among better educated and urban voters.

But the real story of Macon’s Presidency so far has been his economic policy: his determination to cut 120,000 civil service jobs and his adherence to an orthodoxy that, everywhere else in Europe, is being rolled back.

It would be over-generous to say that Macon’s promise to the disillusioned working class voter is simply more of the same. As a fresh faced, charismatic technocrat, he often draws comparisons to Tony Blair. In terms of his real ambitions and France’s less neo-liberalised economy, he is more like a French Thatcher. As Francois Hollande’s economy minister, he oversaw labour market reforms, which, among other things, made it easier for employers to sack workers.

Now, his policy is to increase taxes on pensions, undermine trade union representation and power in public services, and introduce performance-related pay for civil servants as a means of undermining general wage increases – all on top of reforms last year which attacked collective bargaining. Simultaneously, the French government has introduced controversial selection practices in higher education, and, perhaps most significantly, paved the way for the privatisation of French railways.

Thus far, most of the commentary in Britain has focused on a rather wonkish analysis of whether or not Macron can get his reforms through – whether he can “win”. Like the British miners’ strike, this is a race between the unity of the French labour movement and the government’s resolve. But the reality is that, regardless of who wins, Macron’s policies are a disaster for the ideals he claims to be fighting for – most obviously his Europeanism.

When introducing its package of reforms to the railways, the French government has argued that the dismantling of the working conditions of staff is simply a part of readying the state train network, SNCF, for being opened up to competition and liberalisation under the EU’s latest railway directive.

The new EU rules do not really require Macron to do what he is doing – and in any case, the directive could simply be opposed and amended if the French government had the will to do so. And yet, when confronted with the privatisation of the railways, the average French worker finds themselves opposing not just the French government, but, seemingly, the concept of the EU as well.

This is a classic example of how technocratic neo-liberalism operates. Governments with an agenda of privatisation use their seat at the table of trade deals or transnational institutions (in this case the EU) to create rules which supposedly force them to privatise public services – and then claim merely to be following those rules. Fans of privatisation and opponents of state intervention are quite open about the role that state aid rules play – they provide the excuse for right wing governments to do what they want.

Where progressive European idealists would seek a regime of international solidarity and levelling up, Macron offers a race to the bottom. As banks consider their future in the aftermath of Brexit, he is keen to make France a competitive option for big capital and the super rich, offering a big cut to corporation tax, scrapping some property taxes, and maybe even removing the highest bracket of tax for bankers.

It does not take a genius to work out that this situation is a disaster for pro-Europeans and opponents of the far right in France and beyond. But Macron, who carries an axe in one hand and a European flag in the other, is still held up as a saviour of progress by much of the political elite. What his supporters will find is that a deregulatory economic agenda is actively corrosive to the progressive dream of Europe.

The political agenda of Macron – like that of the Labour right, Hillary Clinton and the rightward-drifting establishments of Europe’s social democratic parties – is an agenda sustained only by the collective delusion of its adherents. Every day, it pushes ordinary people into the arms of the far right and resurgent nationalism.

The politics of technocratic centrism are resistant to being labelled in ideological terms, so perhaps we ought to describe them in their own terms. They are incompetent. The growing movement of French workers and students currently mobilising against Macron’s reforms are not just fighting over their own wages and public services.

They are the only force that can save the European project from itself.

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.