A coming storm? Or just passing clouds?

I won’t let anyone spit in railway-workers’ faces

Well that seems reasonably clear. With those words Laurent Berger (leader of France’s biggest trade union, the moderate-ish CFDT, interviewed in business paper Les Echos) welcomed the Government’s plans to reform France’s state railway SNCF … or (more pertinently) the status of its workers. The spirit of Berger’s remarks was summed up by his phrase headlining the interview: ‘The Macron Way: you discuss and I’ll decide … and no-one knows where he’ll come down’.

Some might have an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. In Chirac’s first year as President (1995), Prime Minister Juppé set about reforming retirement categories/age and social security. Over three weeks of the biggest demonstrations since May ’68 – culminating in 2 million on the streets and France effectively paralysed – railway workers led the (largely public worker) fight which killed the reforms. Again, in 2010, Sarkozy’s plans for changes to the pension system were much watered down by united trades-union action, with railway workers in the vanguard of million(s).

Crunch time may be approaching.

Mid-February, former Air France boss Spinetta submitted his 127 page report to Prime Minister Philippe on The Future of Rail Transport (in French). He’d been charged with reflecting on the ‘reorganisation of the French railway model’, in the context of

  • long-ignored EU requirements that the French rail market (with its 400 million annual rail journeys PLUS a further billion passengers in Greater Paris each year) must be finally open to competition from 2020
  • increasing customer concern with a service which spends 15% on high-speed routes carrying 2% of its passengers, while dramatically under-investing in infrastructure for urban/peri-urban transport, and
  • an ever-burgeoning mega-SNCF-debt: up from 20bn€ to almost 55bn€ in 20 years.

Within ten days of receiving the report, the Government announced it would

  • introduce changes to the status of the cheminot (railway worker) such that every new SNCF recruit (smart move: no current employees will have their status affected) would be employed on terms radically different to those enjoyed by some 90% (c. 130,000) current SNCF staff (automatic pay rises, early retirement, generous pension and job security for life, all dating back to the creation of the railway-workers’ status in 1909, even though the SNCF itself only began in 1938) … ‘effective from a date which will’, said the P.M. ‘be decided by consultation’
  • bring in such changes by means of ‘ordinances’ (as the Government did for last year’s Labour Law changes) – so avoiding almost all the tedium of Parliamentary debates/amendments/votes etc – if real progress in effecting changes isn’t quickly made … the Government’s aim being that those newly-employed by the SNCF should (as Premier Philippe said) have the self-same contractual conditions as apply to all French workers, ie ‘the labour code’
  • invite voluntary redundancies – currently forbidden
  • not privatise the SNCF, despite Brussels having demanded, since 2010, that the SNCF should no longer benefit from State guarantees
  • not accept Spinetta’s recommendation that under-used regional lines be closed – had it been otherwise, already-angry rural communities (and probably-angry rural politicians) would have been furious
  • leave the thorny question of railway workers’ special retirement provisions (right to retire aged 52 for train drivers and 57 for others … with them, on average, respectively retiring at 53.5 and 57.5 compared to a national average of 62.4) to be dealt with when The Great Retirement Debate finally gets under way.

Meanwhile the trades unions

  • having previously agreed a national day of demonstrations on 22 March (defending public services against the Government’s proposed changes), vyed with each other as to who could sound most militant in their rejection of the SNCF proposals.
  • ex-Communist-supporting CGT said they were ready for a month’s strike to make the Government give way and called for ‘the biggest industrial action in SNCF’s history’, with 2nd largest union (UNSA) also supporting a strike.

Then it all went extremely quiet. From one day to the next the linguistic bidding up of ‘conflict’, and the promise of a ‘trial of strength’ between Government and organised labour, was transformed into a reasonable attempt to discuss the Government’s plans.

The SNCF’s four trades unions said they’d meet again on 15 March: when a strike would be called if the Government’s proposals remained the same. Maybe it can all be explained away as the trades unions having been gulled by the Prime Minister’s statement that he ‘definitely didn’t see himself as being in a mindset of conflict, war or a trial of strength’. Or maybe the trades unions felt in their hearts that Odoxa would soon produce a poll showing

  • 60% consider a strike ‘unjustified’
  • 71% approve the end of the cheminot‘s special status, and
  • 53% approve the use of ordinances to get to the end-game. [Though all that’s rather predictable when no-one’s actually been affected by any strike]

There’s certainly trade union anger at the Government’s intended use of the (barely-)democratic (though far from rare) executive ‘ordinances’, rather than conventional Parliamentary debate, for such radical SNCF changes. Opposition political parties vigorously (if predictably) reject the Government’s plans (‘denial of democracy’ said the Socialist leader). They highlight the fact that Candidate Macron had said nothing during his campaign about using ‘ordinances’ to force through the SNCF reform laws, in total contrast to his well-publicised ‘mandate’ for labour law revision, by using ordinances. Indeed Candidate Macron barely mentioned the ‘SNCF issue’.

Meaner spirits dig out quotes from Candidate Macron articulated ten months ago. From Le Monde: ‘Look what happens when you reform by using Article 49.3 [the means of issuing executive ordinances], which is nevertheless an Article of the Constitution, PEOPLE TAKE IT REALLY BADLY (my emphasis)’. Even so, ordinances have been used by many previous Presidents for dealing with a variety of difficult matters: President Sarkozy issued 136 of them. Doubtless, that’s why Candidate Macron, on Public Sénat TV recognised their utility as a means of ‘accelerating the debate’.

And yet some see talk of major struggle as hyperbolically over-heated. Political consultant Rozès – who’s worked on the winning election campaigns of Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande (yes really) – explained in Le Monde why ‘2018 is not 1995’. He set out, at length, how ‘the political context and Macron’s uniqueness has fundamentally changed the situation’. In Rozès’s view, ‘the political symbolism personified by a “President as Bonaparte” (sic) … will turn the French people away from the railway-workers’. While, unlike 1995, Rozès sees no ‘broad industrial movement emerging from the SNCF reform and crystallising general discontent’ against the Government.

Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you

The annual Salon d’Agriculture is the place for politicos to be seen. It proves their deep, undying links (at least once a year) with The Land.

President Macron is the new Presidential record holder, spending over 12h 30 minutes at the Salon, so beating previous champ Hollande (he clocked 10 hours in 2013).

Leader of France’s right-wing Républicain party (‘I don’t live in Paris’) Wauquiez showed he’s a man of the soil for whom ‘Agriculture’s not just a conviction, but a passion’ and that he’s fit to fill Presidential (gum)boots. Wauquiez clocked up 2 days at the Salon. Evidently the ideal way to contrast himself with a President whom, he claims, has ‘a hatred of the provinces’ and ‘is the most Parisian President we’ve ever had’.

‘How many times has [Macron] been to a farm since he became President?’ asked Wauquiez rhetorically ‘I’m there every month. Chatting. Discussing things with farmers. That’s something [Macron’s] not understood. Agriculture in France isn’t just an economic sector. It’s a part of French culture. That’s what must be defended.’ [Can you hear the sound of distant dog-whistles]

FRANCE-AGRICULTURE-FAIR-POLITICS
AFP PHOTO / Thomas SAMSON

Wauquiez is the one with scarcely visible horns. He’s (ever-so-appropriately) on the far right, wearing his trademark red Man of the People’s Parka.

More bye-election woes ahead?

Several bye-elections over the coming weeks – following the two won by the right-wing Républicains, with a seat gained from the President’s LREM Party – will help a largely disinterested electorate demonstrate their collective near-disdain for Things Political.

Sunday saw the first round of a bye-election in one of the 2 constituencies of French Guiana (aka Guiana or Guyane), a French overseas Department and Region bordering Brazil to the east and Suriname to the west, some 9 hours flight from Paris.

Last June, these folk mostly didn’t go to vote in a Parliamentary Election, barely one in 4 voted in the 1st round and 1 in 3 in the 2nd. The seat was taken by a 25-year-old representing the LREM in a run off against a Regionalist who was spokesperson for last year’s big industrial action in Guiana. Because the victor had taken the seat by 56 votes, the Constitutional Council annulled the result when it emerged that two polling stations had not had their full complement of electoral officers.

The youthful LREM Deputy, Adam, picked up some baggage in his few months of office. Formal accusation of harassment. Minimalist contributions in the National Assembly. But he ran again (with support from the centrist UDI Party), as did the Regionalist, who had this time received formal support from Mélenchon and his hard left Unbowed France Party. [A no-brainer for Mélenchon since his Party’s candidate picked up 2.4% of the vote last June.]

In a not-unrespectable turnout for a bye-election 1st round (35%), the President’s LREM Party candidate got 43% (tantalisingly close to winning outright by getting 50% + 1 vote) and the Regionalist got 35% (each up, respectively, 7 and 15 points from last June). So, in a repeat of June’s run-off, if the LREM candidate can’t get over the line, there will be more serious questions as to the depth of the LREM’s local support/organisation and its (in)ability to win any election except where there’s a national campaign.

Mélenchon will surely be hoping that, next Sunday, he will be able to welcome his Party’s 18th Deputy to the National Assembly.

And, by a wonderful stroke of happenstance for Mélenchon, there’s another bye-election in south-west France, near Toulouse, next Sunday. It’s in a seat held for decades by the Socialists, though last time won by 91 votes from the LREM.

The combination of further Socialist Party implosion [represented by their selling off their former Marseilles HQ for €2.4M, following the sale of their national HQ] and strong 2017 votes for the Front National (15%) and Unbowed France (14%) will lead Mélenchon to imagine he can characterise himself as the Official Opposition and benefit from Socialist and Front National woes, as well as heightened labour movement tension. Mélenchon’s candidate must have a strong chance of getting through to round 2 … and then possibly further glory beyond.

What to do once you’ve been Prime Minister?

In France, it seems, almost everything is possible. Rumours have been circulating according to (spread by?) RTL radio station and right-wing Le Figaro. It’s said that Prime Minister Philippe may either

  • lead the Presidential Party’s list of candidates for next year’s Euro-Elections, with the intention of France then ‘capturing’ either the Presidency of the European Commission or the Euro-Parliament; or (much more bizarrely)
  • lead a joint Presidential LREM/right wing Républicain list of candidates with the objective of snatching Paris in the 2020 municipal Elections from current Socialist Mayor Hidalgo.

 

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