New Year’s Greetings
Charles de Gaulle allowed cameras into the Elysée Palace on 31 December 1959. Ever since, the French President’s New Year message has been a major ‘political’ moment of the year.
Last New Year’s Eve, Emmanuel Macron’s address was much anticipated. For weeks the gilets jaunes had been in full mayhemesque revolt. Macron had hiked the minimum wage. Tinkering with taxes and pensions, he’d thrown €10 billions at the problem (€7bn more and a Great Debate were still to come). Great things were expected from his speech. Stood in front of his favourite Shepard Fairey picture, the word ‘Fraternité‘ writ large, Macron offered the nation ‘Truth’, ‘Dignity’ and ‘Hope’.
A year on. Déjà vu again. 31st December? Another crisis. Of the President’s own making.
According to Huffpost, 34 of the 59 New Year addresses were delivered by a President sat at his desk. As last year, Macron stood. A free spirit. But, this time, no Fraternité as a backdrop to the President’s shoulders. More solemn, he was in front of a window framing a bucolic scene: the Elysée gardens, a fountain playing middle-distance.
Macron acknowledged that, at this halfway point in their mandate, Presidents usually stopped acting with the same vigour. They would be attentive to the dangers of displeasing people ahead of the upcoming elections. ‘We’, he emphasised, ‘do not have the right to give in to this fatalism. The opposite must happen.’ He promised not just reform, but France’s continuing transformation.
Showing his own vigour-level, last year’s address was extended by 10 seconds to 18 mins. enabling Macron to be crowned New Year’s Eve Presidential Address co-equal record-holder (with de Gaulle).
Calling on the Government to ‘find a rapid compromise’ to the pension reform dispute [not my problem, he seemed to say, far above the hubbub] did he think these remarks helpful: ‘On this very important [pension reform] issue which touches the very heart of French identity, I hear fears and anxieties emerging. I also hear many lies and people manipulating the truth.’
Never knowingly overstated, Mélenchon rejected the speech as ‘… a declaration of war to millions of French people who reject his reform.’ [The People’s Tribune remains leader of his hard-left France Unbound movement despite a complicated 2019. After mediocre Euro-Elections and unusually public internal dissension, December brought Mélenchon a 3 months suspended prison sentence, plus €8K fine, for ‘intimidation’ and ‘rebellion’ when his HQ was being searched regarding their fake Euro-Jobs fraud, as he memorably exploded ‘La République, c’est moi‘.] Martinez, leader of the ex-Communist but still-most-militant trade union, CGT, merely condemned the President for living in a ‘bubble of self-satisfaction.’
The President’s cheer-leaders among the foreign press corps (there aren’t many among the nationals) have been highlighting the increasingly vanishingly small railway workers’ support for the strike against the pension reforms. The excitement of The Economist‘s Paris bureau chief, Sophie Pedder, is tangible:
Yet the Paris Metro, and the cross-Paris RER express trains, remain hugely affected, with barely any trains after 7.30 most evenings. But is that all too Paris-centric? Beyond Greater Paris the strike’s effects have been much less evident. While listeners to public radio news station France Info may have enjoyed music replacing their usual 24/24 hard news.
The strikers themselves feel they’ve made a point. 36 days (and counting) makes this the longest continuous strike on the railways since the creation of French state railways SNCF in 1938. Overall, the strikes are the most serious since May ’68.
Today’s 4th mass anti-pension reform demonstration brought out an ever-smaller number of demonstrators over France. Only 44,000 in Paris according to the much-used independent consultants, Occurrence.
But, importantly, the idea that those infamous 42 separate State pension schemes would be neatly merged in a single universal State scheme is for the birds. Separate deals have been struck with police officers, soldiers, pilots, air traffic controllers and the Paris Opera dancers. Only train and Paris metro drivers born after 1985 will be affected by the reforms. However teachers (awaiting promised pay rises ‘today’ to offset lower pensions ‘tomorrow’), lawyers and chiropodists/physiotherapists/other ‘ists are all spitting mad as they remain ‘losers’ from these reforms.
Public opinion remains broadly ‘opposed’ to the Government’s reforms. This week, pollster Odoxa found 6 out of 10 still describe the strikes as ‘justified’. 61% want the Government to withdraw its proposal that France’s nominal retirement age (age pivot) should go from 62 to 64, ensuring (a) those retiring pre-64 cannot get the maximum pension and (b) increased contributions to the State pension fund, estimated in deficit between €8bn and €17bn by 2025. [Government reversing the age pivot to 62 would be the breakthrough which, at least, would win over the largest trade union, the moderate CFDT. Without it, la lutta continua. And, thus far, The Government Says No.]
Reinforcing the notion that several self-contradictory opinions can be held simultaneously, Odoxa also found not only that the President, Government, CGT union and train workers are each and all ‘rejected’ by 2 out of 3 people, but that 57% actually want the strike to end.
I thought Lichfield’s Observer article (from which the title of this blogpost has been taken) was a good read. I particularly liked his comment that ‘A prudent politician, after the gilets jaunes revolt, might have delayed the [pensions] reform until after the 2022 elections. There can be no immediate economic or electoral bonus from a reform that will not take place fully until 2037.’ [Wot I scribbled myself a month back.]
Lichfield generously wrote: ‘Put [Macron] before two foreign journalists (like his tour de force interview with the Economist in November) and he will present a brilliantly joined-up view of his policies on Brexit, EU reform, hi-tech protectionism, Russian and European defence.’ Pedder supportively responded with:
Pedder surely can’t be saying that an ‘ambient and visceral anti-Macron feeling’ is confined to the French media? If so, she needs to get out more.
Lichfield concludes with: ‘All opinion polls and precedents suggest that even a wounded and unpopular Macron would beat [Le Pen] in 2022 (though by less than the 66-34 drubbing of 2017).’ Less? I would have thought considerably less.
All of which is more than a bit depressing if that’s the best prospect we have to look forward to. A second Macron term is by no means a given – as I will probably keep Cassandrising. Even should he win again, will it be après lui le déluge? Macron’s successful destruction of the traditional parties of the left and the right leaves a surely dangerous void just aching for a populist.
The emergence of the hint of a straw in the Bordeaux wind may leave room for hope as to alternatives. The Green candidate for next year’s Bordeaux municipal elections has successfully united all the ‘old left coalition’. They seem well-placed to take this centre-right bastion.
German Greens first? Then France? Maybe.
Something completely different
One of the many joys of The Pink ‘Un, more soberly The Financial Times, is a delightful column, Life of a Song, a riff about what lies behind the greatest songs. The most recent – about Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell – led me to Bruce Springsteen’s version, live at a concert in Leipzig (viewed on You Tube 39m times). As Michael Hann writes: ‘Springsteen starts teaching The E Street Band what he wants, in a stadium, in front of tens of thousands of people. Finally, after two minutes and 47 seconds, he counts in the song. Anyone who doesn’t find themselves beaming at the next six minutes surely has never loved rock’n’roll.’
I’m not an especially great lover of rock’n’roll. But I certainly beamed.
Blogger’s New Year’s Resolution
1,000 words really should be enough.
But. Heigh-ho. Resolutions don’t always make it to end-January.
A very happy New Year to one and all.