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Balanced Budgets or Battleships?

It is a French tradition that Presidents of the Republic do not comment on French domestic affairs when abroad. Emmanuel Macron, who since his election has spent much time abroad proclaiming «France is back!», broke that rule last week when on a state visit to Greece. Commenting on the demonstrations organised for 12 September against his labour law reforms, he declared that he would not give in to ‘the lazy, the cynics and the extremists’. His opponents had already deemed his enactment of labour reform by decree as a social coup d’état. The ensuing polemic now led some virulent opponents to draw parallels with President de Gaulle’s withdrawal to Baden Baden, at the height of the demonstrations and strikes that blocked France in the spring of 1968, to consult the French army on the Rhine, about its possible support. But more importantly the incident was an example of two seemingly separate aspects of Macron’s policy axioms: restoring France to her rightful international rank and reforming France’s economy. In reality both are inextricably linked. According to Macron’s own analysis the former cannot be achieved without the latter. To take but two examples: not until France reduces her budget deficit to the 3% required by Europe (whose target she twice missed under Hollande) will she be taken seriously by Germany in order to effect the reforms that Macron wishes to push through in Europe; not until France boosts her defence spending to the 2% required by NATO will France be able to deal credibly with the US and its allies on international matters.

But despite his self-styled depiction as Jupiter, god of gods, the gods do not appear to be on his side. Public opinion seems to be deserting him, if the latest opinion polls are anything to go by. Admittedly, in the first round of the presidential elections in April Macron only garnered 24% of the vote, lower than either presidents Hollande or Sarkozy, although he did obtain 66% in the second round, but only by default because his adversary was the Far Right Marine Le Pen, and even then turnout was one of the lowest of the 5th Republic. Since then his popularity after 100 days has plummetted to 40%, lower than any of his predecessors since Chirac. This does not augur well for his flagship labour market deregulation, which if a recent poll is to be believed, nearly 60% of French do not support. Add to that his commitment to reduce government spending this fiscal year by some 16 billion euros and to shave 120,000 civil servants from the payroll during the course of his mandate and one gets an idea of the magnitude of his task and his requirement to have Thatcher-like steadfastness and fixity of purpose to implement his reforms.

Already the rentrée sociale is looking explosive, despite the division of the trades unions, the parties, their internecine squabbles, the absence of a serious parliamentary opposition, other than the 17 strong but highly militant and effective parliamentary grouping of leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise. This week the labour law reform decrees were passed and will be enacted after cabinet on 22 September. But this is merely the beginning.

Mobilisation has already begun. On 12 September between 250,000 and 500,000 demonstrated against Macron’s labour law (exactly the same number as at the beginning of demonstrations against Hollande’s weaker labour laws in 2016), accompanied by strikes from air traffic controllers to train drivers. On 18 September lorry drivers blocked motorways with the same go-slow tactics they had used against President Hollande, with a repeat strike programmed for 25 september intended to block fuel stocks. On 21 September the CGT will stage repeat demonstrations and strikes, while two days later Mélenchon’s political movement will organise its own demonstrations. On 28 September pensioners will take to the streets. More worryingly, because for once all trades unions are united, on 10 October civil servants will strike and demonstrate. The fear is that this will signal «coagulation» of the anti-reform movements. Add to this the growing tension in the university sector, where student unions opposed to Macron’s veiled plans to introduce selection to the university sector are threatening to take to the streets. Prime Ministers Juppé, in 1995, and Villepin in 2006, abandoned their more timid reforms in the face of widespread demonstations and strikes. Macron recently quipped that the French abhor reform. He knows that «la France a la barricade facile». Will he stand firm? It will certainly take more than Macron’s MA philosophy dissertation on Machiavelli to gird him for the struggle ahead. If President Macron backs down on the domestic front, or fails to reform the French economy, he is sure to flounder in his Gaullist quest to restore France to the front rank of international politics.


Professor John Keiger

John Keiger is a Professor of French History and former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His expertise covers France in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a special interest in foreign policy and international relations. His books include: Raymond Poincaré; France and the World since 1870 and Ils ont fait la paix: le traité de Versailles vu de France et d’ailleurs.

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