Herculean Task? Titanic Struggle?

‘I don’t mean that I want to play the hero’ (President Macron, Oct. 2017).

Hercules had to perform his dozen tasks because of that vengeful goddess Hera: she just kept on intervening in his life. As if Emmanuel Macron (elected less than 11 months ago) didn’t have enough Augeanesque stables to be getting on with, what exactly made him decide that Curbing The Cheminots (the railway workers) and their century-old special status (life-long employment, early retirement and other perks) should be his singular self-imposed Herculean task? A challenge surely made so much more difficult because a certain Candidate Macron hadn’t mentioned either railway reform or cheminot-status reform anywhere in his 30 page Presidential Programme, replete with its 105 pledges.

When did France first hear of the President’s radical plans for transformation of the SNCF and the contracts of all its future employees? It was 2 months after his inaugural trip extending the high-speed TGV line to Rennes. He’d chatted with 15 railway workers on the way, and his remarks were duly published in the SNCF’s in-house rag.

The story only appeared in Le Monde last September. That was when we learnt we were to see ‘Titans v. Olympians 2’. The trades unions (naturally) represent the older generation of gods. President Macron continues his previous Olympian role representing the younger generation. To the winner? The accolade ‘Master of the Universe’. No question: The Winner Takes It All, The Loser Standing Small.

An existential struggle to define The Way Forward for France. In fact, it seems dangerously close to becoming a ‘Who Governs France?’ moment.

So, on the day after the President’s legislation for reforming the railways was presented to Parliament for the first time, an update of where we haven’t got to.

4 days down … scores more to go

We could (said Laurent Brun, leader of the SNCF’s lead union, CGT) ‘go on beyond’ 28 June [the current industrial action end-date] if the Government persists ‘with its current posture … We’re ready for a marathon if the Government forces one on us’.

And with but 4 strike days behind us [remember, it’s a 2 days’ strike followed by 3 days’ work stretching out beyond Mid-Summer’s Eve] it’s scarcely the end of the beginning.

Back at the end of February, Prime Minister Philippe had adopted what weekly magazine L’Express described as ‘Churchillian’ language: ‘The situation is alarming, even unsustainable. Whether they take the train or not, the French are paying ever more dearly for a public service which functions ever less efficiently.’

And last week, the Premier showed how critical he thought that the situation had become. He dropped a planned weekend visit to Mali and rushed to France Inter radio station to clarify the lack of movement. ‘The Government is determined to put these reforms through …’ said the Prime Minister. ‘A number of issues are non-negotiable: opening up the railways to competition, transforming the SNCF and putting an end to their special employment status for new SNCF employees, but lots of matters are open to discussion within those parameters’. However, Philippe told Sunday’s Parisien: ‘Everyone should know … we are determined to reach our objective’.

Opinion polls

Who stands where in that vital Court of Public Opinion after the opening salvo of 4 strike days? The People don’t seem quite to have defined what exactly they feel about the situation emotionally. However, perhaps the Government (by its own lights) will feel they may be winning some of the ‘intellectual’ argument.

The most recent public poll (Ifop 5/6 April) informed us that 56% say the industrial action against the Government’s SNCF reforms is not justified, with 44% saying it is [bizarrely for any opinion poll, no-one’s apparently undecided]. However, the Government will draw comfort from a couple of elements:

  • only 16% say the industrial action is completely justified, and
  • despite France’s traditional, historic support for all forms of ‘industrial action’, at 44% the level of public support for the cheminots is considerably lower than for industrial conflicts over many years: this may just demonstrate that support for the railway workers is reduced because of a general discontent with the significantly reduced quality of an ever-pricier SNCF service.

One striking (boom boom) feature of the Ifop poll is the percentage who think the action justified/unjustified has barely changed over 5 Ifop polls since mid-March. But there’s significant movement in one area. Asked whether, personally, they ‘want the Government to go to the end of the announced SNCF reforms, without giving in to the industrial action/strikes’, no less than 62% (up ELEVEN points in a week) want the Government to go on to the end. Equally surprising is that a third of the hard left and half of the left support the Government ‘going on to the end’. While 7 out of 10 believe the Government will go on to the end. Sounds as though, initially, the Government is winning an important part of the information battle.

An earlier Elabe poll showed 44% supporting/sympathising with the strike (up 6 points in 2 weeks), with 46% opposed/hostile (down 8 points). [The Elabe poll showed support slightly higher than BVA‘s 41%.] Entirely predictably, the left is broadly in support, with the centre and right broadly opposed. But a large core of each hold the opposite positions: a quarter of the centre and right support the strike, while a fifth of the left oppose [this is also broadly in line with the later Ifop poll].

Government spokesperson Griveaux, last week,, sounded as if he were trying to lower the level of tension: ‘This reform isn’t a symbol or a trophy … It’s just one reform among others … We will not give up … but we are not in war mode to ascertain who wins and who loses.’ Griveaux said the President had passed on this message to his Ministers at their weekly meeting: ‘We must carry on explaining this reform calmly … The [strikers’] action mustn’t prevent the Government moving forward, leading to the changes for which we were elected less than a year ago’.

A fine example of the Churchillianesque Keep Calm And Carry On.

A lot may be at stake

Government and trades unions have not been slow to hype up The Significance of the Fight.

‘It’s a confrontation with the old world that is critical to the cultural revolution [President Macron] is pushing for’ said Dominique Reynie, head of Paris-based think-tank Fondapol, to the Financial Times. ‘[He] is looking for strong symbols that will act as catalysts for more reforms. It’s a message to the French citizens, that they have the capacity to move on from a bygone era … If he doesn’t succeed in giving the impression that he won, his presidency is dead’.

On the trade union side, the CGT (the formerly all-powerful, formerly Communist Party-linked, largest union within SNCF) is also perhaps fighting for more than this dispute alone. It had intended last autumn to be the start of the Revolutionary Fight-Back Against Macron’s Liberal Régime. But then no-one seemed really interested in joining the Fight-Back. The CGT called for national demonstrations against the restructuring of the Labour Law, but relatively few seemed really to object. Further, this year’s attempts by the CGT to organise (some might say ‘railroad’) trans-union opposition to the Government’s overall ‘Reform Programme’ met push-back from other unions. Yet the SNCF’s cause may unite hearts and souls (if not minds).

The trade unions accuse the Government of intending, in the long run, to set up the SNCF for a possible privatisation. Their belief is that the introduction of competitive railway operators (even if required by the European Union rules) and the change to the SNCF’s corporate status are but stepping-stones towards that objective. They also refuse to accept the Government’s unwillingness just to take over the SNCF’s near €50bn debt (for which the railway workers themselves are scarcely to blame).

The dispute has some importance on the left of politics too. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of France’s hard left Unbowed Party, had hoped that last autumn on the streets would be ‘hot’ enough to allow him to demonstrate his political leadership of The Discontented Left. Rather, Mélenchon’s own rather challenging recent personal time on the streets continued last week (following his being kicked out of the silent march in memory of an elderly murdered Jewish woman – see previous post).

This time, Mélenchon was whistled at on a ‘solidarity with the cheminots‘ march. Why? No idea. Suspicions, fuelled by Mélenchon’s own vigorous reaction, will naturally be aroused. Le Journal de Dimanche reported Mélenchon had to withdraw from the march before its start. Mélenchon described this as ‘pure invention’; he

It was (said Mélenchon) nothing more than a misunderstanding on the part of ‘one or two’ over-excited individuals who’d erroneously thought Mélenchon had something to do with his former Party, the Socialists. As for his early departure, he just had to get back to Parliament.

Hospital away-day, but there’s no escaping That Strike 

Visiting a hospital in Rouen – when announcing extra funds for early autism diagnosis – President Macron had been questioned by a group of nurses on the problems facing the hospitals. He promised that, by summer, some ‘very important decisions’ would be announced which would improve the situation in the hospitals. ‘We will decide’ he said ‘on the necessary funding, but there will have to be some restructuring.’

This turned into a filmed exchange (variously described as ‘sharp’ or ‘heated’): Macron ‘debates’ with 2 nurses demanding extra resources and money. He replies on the need for better organisation. It becomes tetchier when Macron refers to the public deficit and says it’ll be your children who’ll pay if it isn’t you. The President also includes a reference (now perhaps getting rather tired following its distinct over-use by European Leaders) to there being no ‘magic money’.

The 5 minute ‘discussion’ ends with barely concealed anger on each side as Emmanuel Macron wants to move away, but cannot resist a further sally. [Note increasingly exasperated Minister of Solidarity and Health, Agnes Buzyn, next to the President, almost literally committing lèse-majesté by venturing a couple of sentences.]

Finally, one of the nurses says she refuses to shake the President’s hand, and the President says he really has to get on and meet the parents and patients. The nurse gets in the last word to the departing President: ‘I’m here for these people every single day at 5 o’clock in the morning.’

The President ended his visit to Rouen Hospital briefly replying to journalists’ questions on the SNCF. The Government had to continue explaining, he said, what it was trying to achieve; but (Churchillian tones?) then declared that ‘industrial action mustn’t prevent the Government from governing’.

‘The oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognized in the United States, Britain, and other democracies’ (John Pilger, Australian journalist)

A tradition of French journalism is that, unlike in the US/UK (semi-pejoratively often described as the ‘anglo-saxon‘ countries), interviews of The Great and The Good appear with questions and answers printed verbatim. There’s no paraphrasing of answers and no ‘editorialising’ on the part of the interviewer. No commentary by the journalist on how the interviewee dealt with particular questions. It’s as if you were reading a print-out of a radio/TV interview.

The proposed text might well then be given to the interviewee pre-publication to allow for correction of obvious errors. However, this practice (the delightfully-named caviardage) is increasingly open to the charge of being little more than an opportunity for the interviewee to censor the interview.

The sometimes gadfly news weekly Marianne revealed last week an interesting example of caviardage. Economically liberal business daily Les Echos (little renowned for its Neo-Revolutionary editorials) had spiked a mid-March interview with Transport Minister Borne on the SNCF. The interview with the Minister – a former SNCF Director of Strategy, known to be especially careful with her language – had re-emerged from the Prime Minister’s office ‘so re-written’ that Les Echos felt it no longer represented what had been said by this ‘prudent’ Minister. The interview was duly junked.

Parlez-vous français ou, peut-être, franglais?

The President has made much of his plans to increase the heft of French in the post-Brexit, post-anglophone world. He’s already got no less than 33 initiatives for ‘Learning’, ‘Communicating’ and ‘Creating’ in French. They were unveiled last month in his major speech at the Académie française.

When, therefore, he tweeted this strange phrase last week from his earlier speech, some found it risible: ‘La démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre‘. Pauline Bock (The Guardian) usefully summarises some of the President’s linguistic issues.

We learnt yesterday that the President will have no less than 2 TV outings this coming week. We were perhaps going to have to wait for his Election anniversary. But, after weeks of silence, he’s decided to let us in on his thinking about Les Réformes.

The absence of franglais (and even more certainly of anglais) is probably guaranteed. Especially because one of his ‘fireside chats’ (revealed by HuffingtonPostFrance) will be Thursday lunchtime, on commercial station TF1, live from a tiny village in semi-deepest Normandy. This, said HuffPost, was intended to show the President talking both to older people (really fed up with a loss of purchasing power through taxes hitting pensioners exclusively) and rural-dwelling people (really fed up full stop).

The President’s interviewer on TF1 will be a 68-year-old white man, J-P Pernaut, the face of TF1‘s lunchtime news bulletin for 30 years. So as to lend a degree of ‘balance’, the President’s 2nd interview, on Sunday evening, will be conducted by

  • J-J Bourdin, the editor of RMC radio station (a 68-year-old white man) and
  • E Plenel, Le Monde journalist for 25 years and publisher of online Mediapart (BUT please note that Mr Plenel, although white, is a mere SIXTY FIVE YEARS OLD)



One thought on “Herculean Task? Titanic Struggle?

  1. Again very readable and informative. An interesting ‘compare and contrast’ exercise is between the ‘Anglo-saxon’ style of political interviews and the French way.

    The Anglo-saxon approach is much more confrontational , indeed bullying, à la Paxman and Humphreys. This is not always very edifying or indeed informative as the wretched interviewee often has difficulty completing a sentence before being interrupted.

    The French style is much more respectful and often amounts to the gentle lobbing of pre-arranged questions to be smashed to the boundary by the masterful interviewee. Perhaps to be demonstrated again by the choice of interviewers referred to in the article. However at least this has the advantage of allowing the interviewee to put his or her points across with dignity intact and without serious challenge.


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