Will the real President Macron please stand up
Devotees of French level crossings (passages à niveaux) – as well as of this blog – will be more than acquainted with the warning Un train peut en cacher un autre. This sign alerts those crossing to the possibility of another train being hidden behind the first.
Latterly, time has been spent trying better to understand the President’s politics. Is this man who ‘doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus’ indeed the seriously europhile, economic liberal previously (self-)portrayed, or a somewhat more traditional French politician? And what may have caused such a precipitate tumble in the opinion polls?
President Roosevelt, in a 1933 radio address, introduced the concept of ‘the first 100 days’ – even though he was in fact referring to the initial 100 day session of Congress when 15 major laws were enacted to try to end the Great Depression. Those first hundred days have since been seen as the period when an incoming leader has the greatest power and influence. With 100 days of power now behind President Macron it’s time to review some of the events of those 100 days, especially the last month.
The Italian Job (or ‘e gave them I-talians a real goin’ over)
President Macron’s first industrial initiative was a dramatic Statist market intervention. [This is putting aside his June ribbon-cutting at the launch of Paris’s Station F, Europe’s (?) / The World’s (?) largest start-up incubator]. The thunderbolt was the nationalisation of the STX France (naval/commercial) shipyard, based near the Loire. This surprise prevented Europe’s largest shipbuilder, Italian Fincantieri, taking it over. Although, to be fair, one distasteful word appeared on no Minister’s lips: ‘nationalisation’.
Aeons ago (ie 2005) STX had been a flower of French industry rejoicing in the infinitely more elegant moniker Les Chantiers de l’Atlantique. Cruise liners had been built by them for decades, including the Normandie and the Queen Mary 2. It had then fallen on hard times, becoming variously owned by Norwegian Aker and South Korean STX.
When the latter went bust, Italy’s Fincantieri bid. But, some moments before the bid became a done deal, the French Government announced the purchase of those STX France shares they didn’t already own for €80 million. It was said the intervention was to ‘defend France’s strategic interests’ and prevent a yard that builds naval vessels becoming Italian … or possibly losing important technology to China. When the predictable storm erupted, a sop was thrown Fincantieri’s way: the Elysée said France would ‘reach agreement’ with Italy and Fincantieri would have ‘an important role’.
This political act was intended to show, commented Le Monde, that even with a Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy drawn from the right, the President could take ‘left’-leaning decisions when necessary. But, they continued, he’s ‘not a convert to Socialism. He’s not become an enthusiast for the socialisation of the means of production … But the President’s a Jacobin* who believes in the power of the State … This authoritative and highly Jupiterian act demonstrates the Head of State’s wish to defend economic patriotism’. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. After all, then-Economics Minister Sarkozy didn’t baulk at nationalising Alstom in 2004.
[* ‘Jacobin’ is sometimes used in Britain as a pejorative for radical, left-wing revolutionary politics, especially when it exhibits dogmatism and violent repression. In France, Jacobin now generally indicates a supporter of a centralised republican state and strong central government powers and/or supporters of extensive government intervention to transform society’ (per Wikipedia). Vive la différence.]
For information, French companies have bought over €52 billions of Italian assets between 2002-2016, against €7.6 billions of French assets being bought by Italian companies (say consultants KPMG). France had recently decided it would become the diplomatic saviour of Libya – a country seen by Italians a ‘traditional’ Italian territory for the exercise of influence. France also announced a formal pause in the construction of the Lyon-Turin high-speed rail line as part of the Government’s major projects review [this pause will in fact have come as a great relief to those many protestors who claim that the billions would be better spent improving the existing line].
Was there a discernible pattern? The Italian press certainly expressed disquiet:
- Il Giornale (the right-wing tabloid) voiced the suspicion that ‘Italy gets the refugees, Macron gets Libya’s oil’
- The business paper Il Sole 24 ore referred to the ‘Franco-Italian crisis’
- Centrist La Stampa denounced the French position on STX as ‘incomprehensible’
Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that ‘History is just one damned thing after another’ while British PM Harold Macmillan seemingly never told a journalist that the thing most likely to blow a government off course were ‘Events, dear boy, events’.
President Macron has latterly been enjoying a lot of both ‘damned things’ and ‘events’.
- Open warfare with the Chief of Staff – leading to the virtually-demanded premature demise of said Chief … plus an unhappy coda when Government spokesperson and Deputy Castaner said ’twas all General de Villiers fault for writing a blog
- Deceleration/hesitation/restoration of the promised Wealth and local Property Tax reduction. Many (most? nobody knows) of the current 350,000 Wealth Tax payers will pay zero Wealth Tax when it’s transmuted into an Expensive Property Tax; 80% of local Property Taxpayers will also be free of that tax. This attempt to get The Rich to invest in shares not property was unhappily combined, timing-wise, with …
- Reduction of €5/month/household in the monies payable in housing subsidies (APL) to some 6.3 million of the very lowest-earners in society [in France ‘minuscule’ cuts are referred to as a rabot or a planing-down]. Distressed beneficiaries of the APL importantly include students whose voices will begin to be heard clearly when School’s Back next month. And this hugely unpopular move was done to save a mere €100 million on this year’s global APL budget of NINETEEN BILLION EUROS. The Government tried (but failed) to push all the blame onto Hollande’s last budget. They closed the blame game sequence by announcing a global reform of APL for the autumn. Even the President of the Agency which calculates and distributes this vital housing aid expressed his astonishment at not having been consulted about this ‘brutal and unjust measure’
- By far the longest-running silly season story was the ‘proposal’ for Mme Macron to become a First Lady with a defined standing. Candidate Macron had called for the ‘status of the First Lady or First Man’ to be ‘clarified’ – saying the First Lady/Man should not be paid for by the State but have a ‘status’. And then it all fell apart big time. First, 300,000 internauts signed an online petition against such ‘special status’. Then politicians galore pontificated about Mme Macron being employed by the President just when the law banning employment of family members had been effected [in fact while she might have received money from the State it would not have been her husband who employed her. He may be Jupiterian but it’s not yet L’Etat, c’est moi – (I am the State)] The non-idea was rapidly put back in a box. In a few weeks time ‘clarification’ of Mme Macron’s role will be published.
Even Presidential invitations, in successive weeks, to Bono and Rihanna (UN ambassadors both for education in developing countries) didn’t divert sufficient attention from this succession of ‘things’ and ‘events’.
To complete the Government’s run of possible discomfiture, even The Grass Roots appeared to be preparing to become a tad bolshie. No less than 30 dissident members of La République en Marche – from among its some 370,000 members [unrepeatable offer: LREM membership is still free] – went to Court to protest against the adoption of the Party’s new statutes. Rallying under the flag of La démocratie en Marche (and protesting against the adoption of alleged ‘anti-democratic’ provisions in the statutes put before the members by The Hierarchy) the Dirty Thirty
– demanded more time for amendments … the dog days of summer being too hot
– called for internal elections for the senior echelons of the Party, and
– urged that the €20.5 millions of State subsidies which the central party would receive annually should be better spread around.
But the rush to justice was of little avail: the Court rejected their demands, even if the vote on the statutes was extended a fortnight.
Has Jupiter descended too frequently from his Olympian redoubt? Something has caused a dramatic foreshortening of the President’s State of Grace.
On 23 July, Ifop gave Macron a 54% ‘satisfied’ rating (down 10 points in a month) amongst whom a miserly 7% were ‘very satisfied’. That was the biggest drop in popularity of any President since Chirac lost 15 points between May-July 1995. Among cited complaints were:
- a prospective hike in a tax (CSG) which will particularly hit pensioners
- a Presidency founded on PR/communication
- the prospective reform of the Labour Law (just shows what disasters can befall if a President actually proposes carrying through their promised programme)
- ‘authoritarianism’ against the Chief of Staff
But then things got somewhat ‘worse’ poll-wise. The President dropped to a measly 36% popularity (YouGov 2 August), down 7 points in a month. [For the President to find himself 1 point behind PM Philippe’s own popularity could itself be Grounds For Prime Ministerial Discomfiture]. The Government’s own popularity dropped 5 points in a month to 33%: nearly Socialist Government approval levels.
Most recently, IFOP (11 August) confirmed the 36% Presidential satisfaction rating (with but 4% ‘very satisfied’ and a rather substantial 19% ‘very dissatisfied’). Right-wing Le Figaro gleefully pointed out that after his first Hundred Days, President Hollande had 46% satisfaction. IFOP also found that:
- only 45% think the President’s keeping his election promises – that may well be to do with the shilly-shallying over Government policy/timing over tax cuts
- 23% said they saw things changing for the better, 39% said they’re changing for the worse, while 38% said ‘they’re not changing’
- And responding to a still more silly season question about the ‘conflict’ between President and Chief of Staff over defence budget cuts (resulting in the latter’s self-immolation) a mere 18% support President Macron, with 41% supporting General de Villiers, 34% neither of them and 7% both of them. So no military coup just yet.
Jerome Fourquet of Ifop commented ‘The risk which the President needs to watch out for is that the French progressively shift from saying ‘He’s brilliant and he’s successful at everything he does’ to ‘It’s just all about communication’
The literal meaning of rentrée is the start of the new school year following the end of the (still wonderfully long) summer holidays. But it’s actually so very much more than that in France. Shops are filled with advertising for all the goodies that really must be bought for the new academic year. It’s a renaissance after the shut-down of many businesses during August. In the context of this blog it’s very much a political re-awakening after the summer close-down and neo-truce.
This year those lucky politicians have been short-changed. They were eventually allowed to start their Official Hols on August 9 after they finally voted through the law on the Moralisation of Public Life: 412 in favour, 74 against and 62 abstentions. They were worked hard following their election, also passing the outline Labour Law giving Government the power to change the law by executive order.
Others have already got dates in their diaries: the Communist CGT union has called for ‘mobilisation’ and a ‘day of action’ against the new Labour Law (whatever that might ultimately say) on 12 September. Others thus far abstain. The 3rd largest union, Force Ouvrière or FO (Workers Force) was at the very forefront of the 4 months’ battle against the last Socialist Government’s attempts to amend the Labour Law. For now, FO is actively participating in lengthy consultations and appears way less militant than the CGT. Generally, this is The Quiet Before The (Possible) Storm. The Labour Law proposals will finally be presented end-August, with their adoption planned for September.
The President is preparing for his own rentrée by remaining away from the media. No chats with preferred journalists, no impromptu Press Conferences. He even complained to the police about a press photographer harassing them yesterday and invading their privacy. In due course, some form of ‘direct’ communication from President to People is expected to emerge. The hot money is currently on a live Facebook event. The talk is of getting a million views that way. Maybe it’s a good way to get people’s attention for the coming promised changes to unemployment benefit, training and housing benefit?
And finally. Here’s one he did earlier
When Emmanuel Macron was Minister of the Economy, he liberalised the market for long-distance coach travel. SNCF’s trains were all anyone needed: even if it did often mean – because of France’s Paris-centric planning – that one had to take a train to Paris first and then a 2nd train to one’s destination. Coach travel had virtually no place in the French transport offering. Now it seems to be seriously taking off, with around 20% of those travelling being people who had previously travelled little, if at all. Germany’s private sector company Flixbus has 45% of the market, with passenger numbers up 80% over last year. SNCF’s subsidiary, OuiBus, has 40% and Isilines (a subsidiary of French public sector Transdev) the balance. In 2016 over 8 million travelled on a ‘Macron coach’.