In the media Macron enjoys favourable reports, flattering photos, and an absence of criticism. His visits abroad, his reception of foreign heads of state at Versailles (Putin) or the Champs Elysée’s Bastille Day parade (Trump in 2017) are all occasions for pageantry almost à la British.
He is the first head of state in the world accorded a state visit to Washington, where he was called ‘His Excellency Emmanuel Macron’. He puts France on the stage internationally. He is there militarily in Syria and in Africa. At the end of May he was in St Petersburg, talking man to man with Putin once again.
He is active in Europe; Angela Merkel has awarded him the Charlemagne Prize for his work; in his acceptance speech in the city of Aachen (Aix la Chapelle) he lectured the Germans on their economic and financial behaviour.
He is dynamic at home with a vigorous programme of reforms, which he can push through Parliament with his large majority. The opponents to the reform are hopelessly divided. The four railway unions engaged in a 3-month strike disagree on strategy. The CFDT does not want the opening of the railways to competition, but thinks that it is inevitable, and that in consequence it is vital to negotiate guarantees for the railway workers who will find themselves out of a job if they do not transfer over to new companies that will take over certain routes.
Since the SNCF will compete for these routes, probably in the guise of one of its many subsidiaries, it is essential that it is prevented from engaging in social dumping by paying the employees less than those directly employed by the SNCF. Some CGT members call the CFDT a bunch of traitors for holding this position; this is the usual jibe of the old Communist Party (CP) left: ‘the CFDT spend their time negotiating the weight of the chains’ (instead of refusing to be slaves in chains in the first place).
On 9th May the percentage of strikers had gone down to 17% of the workforce; this figure is an average over office and rolling stock employees, the latter being more involved and with a greater impact. At the beginning (3rd April) the average was 22%, with 66% among drivers. The unions decided mid-May to have a referendum of railway employees: “do you agree with the reform, yes or no?”. Parliament voted the reform, by 454 votes to 80 and 29 abstentions. The 80 who voted against were the CP, the ‘New Left’ (la Nouvelle Gauche is a parliamentary group) and Melenchon’s outfit (France Insoumise).
In the event 60% of railway workers took part in the ballot, and over 94% opposed the reform. This was an answer to Macron saying that the majority of railway workers approved the reform.
The leader of CGT cheminots (the railways workers) has been in place for just over a year. Son and grandson of railway workers, he is a full-time union official since 2005; he worked in the railways from 2000 to 2005.
Looking at the websites of the four main railway unions, the CGT one is not immediately useful for information for the general public. It is the biggest union in terms of numbers (it gathered 37% of votes in the last professional elections, as opposed to 21% for Unsa and 17% for Sud and 14% for CFDT); however its dossier on the reform concerns the 2014 reform, not the most recent one.
The CFDT website is the most useful to the general public. Several leaders of the railway employees explain clearly on video the main points of the strike: and the clearest is, that the famous debt of the SNCF, the supposed origin of the reform, is due to government policy since the 80s of favouring High-Speed lines at the expense of ordinary lines. The TGVs necessitated the building of a whole new network of tracks and installations, since high speed trains need new special tracks to reach maximum speed. All this was financed by borrowing, and entailed a lack of investment on the maintenance of most traffic, and in particular regional and commuter traffic. In comparison to the costs involved, the wages and pensions bills are small beer and the end of the railway status not the solution.
The CFDT website also mentioned one actual example of what happens with the opening to competition.
A new tramway/train links two suburbs of Paris, allowing passengers to commute from one to the other without going via the centre of Paris. It is line 11, a tramway able to travel as fast as a train. It is not run by the SNCF but by subsidiary of the SNCF, called Transkeo. Its employees do not have railway worker status. There are no collective agreements, and they are paid less than their SNCF colleagues. They cost 40% less than employees on other lines, also because they have more responsibilities, that is, the driver is also ‘station master’. This is, as the CFDT points out, an example of what happens with ‘opening to competition’. It may be that with the strike and negotiations this sort of social dumping will no longer happen.
The government has made some concessions; the Prime Minister has agreed to meet the unions; following the leaking of minutes of a meeting of railway bosses discussing privatisation, the minister of transport has vowed to legislate against any privatisation. There are guarantees that workers finding themselves employed by competitors of the SNCF will keep their status. Finally the government has agreed to take over part of the SNCF debt, so that it’s now on the government’s book. All the unions including the CFDT are calling for a continuation of the movement, and a demonstration outside the Senate for its debate of the reform law on 29th May.
25% of railway employees belong to a union, as opposed to the national average of 7% unionisation. Still, however strong the railway workers’ case, the balance of power is with the government; the weakness of street demonstrations indicates that the government is entitled to feel that they, the government, will win in the end.
The government is acting with extreme but discrete firmness against student occupation of universities.
Like the railway workers, they are protesting against a measure that will affect not them personally, but those who will come after them. (The reform of the statute of employment in the railways will only apply to new entrants.)
In the same way the students are protesting against a reform that will affect present day school students. They will no longer be able to enter university on the strength of their passing the baccalaureate; they will make a list of choices and be offered places, or not. Students have occupied universities since March. These occupations have been cleared one by one by riot police, operating in the early hours of the morning. The government is making sure this movement is not coordinating or gathering momentum. And nowhere do you see headlines about ‘police state’ or ‘police brutality’. Macron has the media on his side, as we said.
So far the actions against Macron have come from the last remnant of an organised workforce, who know what union power means, but who are isolated and divided. A little bribing of the population also helps: Macron has abolished one local tax; initially only the less well-off were to be exempted, now it’s everybody. The consequence is that local authorities will have to cut services, but still, it’s money in your pocket in the short term.
What to make of the publicity around his long weekend with his wife in the fort of Brégançon (the official retreat of presidents since 1968) on the South coast? On Europe 1 radio the news followed a piece on the Cannes festival, where the red carpet was women only. Macron and his wife were in Brégançon incognito, but the local population had forwarded gifts to their address, and had been assured that the couple would receive them. Ten minutes later on a different radio station, the news was that ‘crowds normally assemble round the fort when the president is at home, but not on this occasion. Times change.’
A series of demonstrations have taken place in April and May; the Northern ‘France Insoumise’ deputy François Ruffin on 5 May organised a ‘Fête à Macron’ (it’s a pun: a fête is a party, but ‘faire la fête à X’ means to beat him up.) After marches on 19th and 22nd, various political groups and associations organised what they forecast as ‘a human tidal wave’ on 26 May; 280,000 people marched spread over 80 towns, with 80,000 in Paris. These are very small numbers; the prime minister made fun of the ‘low tide’ and the tape of Mélenchon calling on 5th May for this tidal wave is played over and over on the radio.
People are worried about employment and security; they see big changes taking place; whole areas of activity shut down altogether years ago, and now many factories are delocalised, leaving millions with no prospect of work, unless it’s low paid, part-time and unqualified. But people also know this is happening in other European countries and in America; it’s not Macron’s fault. They also know that this ‘opening of the SNCF to competition’ is demanded by the EU, and again that’s not directly Macron’s fault. Macron can appear as the man to steer France through this uncharted territory.
News in brief
England is the model in all things across the Channel: their latest good deed is that they ban plastic straws! They also permit abortion, including in Northern Ireland, according to a map in Le Monde. If you had any doubts, and why would you, you could hover your mouse over Britain on the map and you would find out that’s not the case.
If you click on all European countries one after the other you find that most allow abortion up to 12 weeks, some up to 14 weeks, and only Britain and the Netherlands allow it up to 24 weeks.
The banlieues have not figured prominently in the headlines recently in term of riots for example. Macron commissioned a report on the banlieues from ex minister Jean-Louis Borloo; launching it at the Elysée Palace on 22nd May, Macron said ‘What do two white males who don’t live in these places know about them anyway?’ This was a flippant remark which might come back to haunt him.
Maryam Pougetoux, Muslim president of the student union UNEF at the university Paris-IV (Sorbonne university), goes about her duties wearing a headscarf. Is prejudice diminishing in France, at least in some places? Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said Ms Pougetoux’s appearance in a hijab was a “provocation” that he found “shocking”. But the student union itself apparently is fine with it. Students are perhaps not so daft after all.
For number of railway union members: