2017 10 – News From France


Macron: victories and defeats.

Macron has had some victories and a defeat recently. He has achieved the reform of the Labour legislation which previous governments had foundered on: the Labour Law has been passed, and it’s all over bar the shouting.

He has made well received speeches internationally. At the United Nations General Assembly on 18 September he spoke after Trump and sounded sensible and far seeing: ‘respect treaties, put diplomacy first’ he said.

In Athens on 7th September he showed once more his success in presenting himself, and his country, in a grandly spectacular manner. He made his speech outdoors, in the darkness of the evening, standing behind a white pulpit, the illuminated Parthenon on its hill in the distance. He had gone a bit far with his march between a double row of Napoleonic Guards at the meeting of the assembled Parliament in Versailles, although a similar slow dramatic approach with Putin also in Versailles had looked convincing.


The setback, rather than defeat, is the low number of LRM (La République en Marche, Macron’s party) senators elected in September.  As said in the previous Froggy, Senators are renewed by half every 3 years, and they are elected by ‘grands électeurs’ made up of local government elected representatives. The LRM party having only been in existence for a year, it didn’t have any grands electeurs so  there are only 28 LRM senators.  That means Macron does not have a majority of the assembly of both houses, needed for example to change the constitution.  This set back has been pooh-poohed as of no importance.  96% of grands électeurs  are local councillors, little people. A certain professor of law called the Senate the ‘The Rye and Sweet Chestnut Assembly’. That means, the assembly of the poor sods reduced to living on rye and sweet chestnuts, traditional produce of the poorest soil. This is an exaggeration, but you get the idea that people who count are well off and live in towns.


The opposition

The opposition, what opposition?  The Socialist Party is in disarray, and anyway compromised with its participation in the Macron government.  The ‘Republicans’ are in a similar situation.  Mélenchon continues with his one-man outfit ‘France Insoumise’ (‘Unsubmissive France’. The stupid translation conveys quite well the flavour of the name) with its symbol, the Greek letter phi.

Mélenchon has made himself ridiculous recently; Macron speaking in New York to CNN had said that he would not yield to street demonstration against the Labour Law: “Democracy is not [the rule of] the street,” he said. To which Mélenchon replied: “It was the street defeated the Nazis”. Even those with the haziest notion of history would realise the utter absurdity of the statement.

Opposition to the Labour Law has come to nothing. Because the law was passed during the summer and it is disheartening to try to undo an accomplished fact and because the different strands of possible opposition to it did not come together, instead calling for separate days of action on different dates.

The CGT called for two days of action, 12 and 21 September; Mélenchon called for demonstrations on 23 September.  The nearness of the dates is a dismal demonstration of disunity and weakness.

All were relatively poorly attended.  At the end of September, there remained the action of CGT lorry drivers who mounted small blockades to protest against the unfair competition presented by poorly paid foreign drivers employed by French companies.  They did not blockade oil refineries, which are now well guarded.


Brexit good for Europe, says Macron

Macron has made it clear that he thinks that Britain leaving is good for Europe.  In Luxemburg on 29 August he said that now there will be an end to the situation where during the last 5 years of the Euro crisis the countries of the euro zone dared not meet as a Eurozone, because that would displease the UK and Poland. And what thanks did Eurozone countries get? That is now irrelevant, said Macron during his visit to Luxemburg. Now the Eurozone will meet firmly as Eurozone, it will be reinforced with a Parliament, a finance minister and a budget (subject to Germany going along with that). In another important speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris on 26 September he was expected to set out this project in detail and to say that, previously, that is before the departure of the UK, the EU had been hampered by the necessity of taking decisions unanimously. This could now change.

Now pioneer countries in Europe will take their own decisions and others will follow if they want, but no country will be able to obstruct, as the UK used to do. Unwilling countries would no longer be able to prevent other countries from going forward in their desired direction. Nor will countries have to resort to the lowest common denominator as the price for agreement. If Poland does not want to change the rules on ‘posted workers’ (working e.g. in France, but paying the lower social contributions of their country of origin), it won’t be able to stop other countries like France banning them; that doesn’t mean Poland is not part of Europe. There can be common understanding between Poland and other EU countries on European defence, said Macron. Macron is preparing this new reform with personal meetings: he has met face-to-face 22 leaders out of the 27.

He is also making proposals to make Europe more popular with the voters, such as a wider Erasmus programme and the creation of a European Innovation Agency; he also supports a tax system for giant digital companies like Amazon etc, which should prove popular in a Europe where people still believe in taxation.


Macron following the UK nevertheless?

In many other respects however, Macron gives the impression he wants to modernize France by making it more like the UK. For example, he wants to introduce PAYE, which is fine, except that it goes together with individualization of taxation. At the moment in France, households declare tax as one and pay tax on their combined income of the previous year. Macron proposes that husband and wife/official partners be taxed separately, with the children being attached for tax purposes to one or the other parent. This is an attack on the family.

Macron wants to sell council houses. He wants the population to save less. The two are connected. There is a state saving scheme, which is very popular, called the ‘Livret A’ [Savings Book A]. The money saved in this scheme is partly used by the state to finance social housing. Macron wants to freeze the interest paid to Livret A holders, to discourage saving.  This will have the result among other things of reducing public money which can be spent on housing.

The mingling of social classes has a name in France: Social mix, la mixité sociale, and it is held as a good thing but policies drive in the opposite direction: once people reach a certain income, their council rent is increased to such an extent that they are forced to move. Social housing used to be generally liked, for example teachers moving to a new area were allocated a state flat for as long as they wanted it. There was no stigma attached to that. But in one of his early speeches, Macron alluded to council estates as ‘sad’. This is reminiscent of the situation in Britain.  Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon boast of having ‘overcome’ their growing up on a council estate. Yet many people used to be very proud of their council house.

Then there is austerity. The state budget for social housing is also being drastically reduced. Housing benefit is being reduced, by 5 Euros a month, and social housing providers have been told to reduce rents accordingly; they have also been told to sell 1% of their stock each year, that amounts to 40 to 50,000 flats a year.  As a first step, flats will be sold to housing associations. You would have thought that the images of Grenfell Tower beamed in France as in the rest of the world would have been a warning against tinkering with the management of council housing.

Another austerity measure is a cut in the number of subsidized jobs; in 2016, there were 459,000 people on ‘aided contracts’ i.e. jobs paid partly by local authorities partly by the state, for teaching assistants and other help with local initiatives.

Macron is being given more leeway to do what he wants than previous presidents. So far he has been able to carry out his programme. He faces a very poor opposition and in a situation perceived as infinitely complex, nobody is presenting a clear alternative to what he is doing. On the other hand he seems to be just following the liberal English model of thirty years ago.