France

Macron grits his teeth as the rail unions bare their gums

BY Walter Ellis | Waltroon   /  5 April 2018

All in all, it hasn’t been a bad week for Emmanuel Macron. Railway workers, health sector personnel and the staff of Air France have all been on strike, for a variety of reasons. But though the cumulative effect has been felt throughout the country, the impact on the President and his plans for the wholesale reform of public sector labour laws has thus far been minimal.

The scenes at railway stations in Paris on Tuesday featuring young men climbing through the windows of the few commuter trains still running in order to gain advantage over those waiting on the platforms for doors to open did little to convince the general public that they were all in it together – whatever “it” was.

People, understandably, expressed their anger and frustration that the Government and unions are at loggerheads over the operation of essential services. Parties on the Left did their best to exploit the situation, while even those on the mainstream Right grumbled that the situation was getting out of hand. But at the same time there was little indication that France was in for a repeat of les evenements of 1968, when a revolt, led by students with the support of the trade unions, brought the Establishment to its knees, hastening the retirement of its iconic leader General De Gaulle.

2018, it turns out, is not 1968. Fifty years on, support for revolutionary change has declined practically to zero. Even in the universities, where the Far Left has been working overtime to cause trouble, all they have stirred up so far is apathy. Students have indeed been protesting, but their biggest demand has been for amnesty for those facing finals at a time when it may be difficult for them to get to the examination halls.

If there is ever a time for complacency, this may be it for Macron. He doesn’t have to win the applause of the mass of his countrymen and women for his defiance of the strikers. He merely has to ride out the storm, which in any case looks as if it may never reach hurricane force.

The last political strikes recorded as a win for the Left took place in 1995, when the then Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, was forced to resign after withdrawing his plans for the reform of pensions and social security. In the present case, Macron has entrusted the heavy lifting to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, while he himself has either kept a low profile, weekending with his wife in Le Touquet, or else busied himself with other matters, including the promise of €340 million over five years to combat autism.

While the Unions and Far-Left have taken to the streets in support of the rail workers, the Macron Government has carried on with business as usual. Just this week, it was confirmed that a controversial reform of parliamentary representation would go ahead as scheduled, leading to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of deputies and senators next time round and the introduction of an element of PR into the system.

The assumption is that Macron, with his thumping majority in the National Assembly, is determined to write as much as possible of his domestic agenda into law during  his first two years in power so that he has time thereafter to concentrate on leading Europe and securing a second term in the Elysée.

For the unions, long a dominant force in the nation’s affairs, it is arguably make or break time. If the present rash of strikes, intended to continue on a weekly basis until June, fails to curb the spread of Macronism, government in France will have turned an important corner. Macron, a keen student of Margaret Thatcher as well as Tony Blair, knows that his opponents will not give up easily. There is too much at stake. But he also knows that if he stands his ground and the tide of rebellion recedes, his re-election in 2020 is all but assured.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, the trend within public opinion is developing much as should have been expected. The President’s approval ratings are down a few percentage points, as are those for his prime minister. Jean Luc Melenchon, leader of the quasi-Marxist France Insoumise, has seen his ratings tick up, but not so that you’d notice. Marion Maréchal Le Pen, niece of Marine Le Pen, granddaughter of Jean-Marie, has similarly benefited from a mini-surge in support of the Far right – this while she is in theory taking time off from front-line politics. But upward blips for the extremes mean little so long as the centre holds, and so far at any rate there is no sign of Macron either backing down or changing tack. He is in the fight to win and plans to out-wait as well as outwit his opponents.

On the substance of the strikes, nothing has altered. The rail workers of SNCF want what they have always wanted – more of the same – meaning jobs for life, generous holidays, early retirement and free tickets for their families. They would not be human if they gave these benefits away without a struggle. Air France staff want an immediate 6 per cent pay rise. Health workers want increased government support  at a time of heightened demand – an issue Macron says he is willing to address. To add to the mix, those employed in rubbish collection want a nationally agreed contract covering pay and conditions, while workers at Carrerfour, the country’s largest supermarket chain, and the second biggest worldwide, want assurances over job cuts and closures.

On the rail front, it all starts again on Sunday, when rail workers – cheminots – walk out for another two days, followed by three days on and a further two days off, and so on into the summer, or just possibly into the sunset.

Never say never, of course. Maybe the unions  will win. Maybe the country will rally behind them and give Macron an unexpected kick in the teeth. In the past, the smart money would certainly have been wagered on such an outcome. But times are changing. France is changing. With luck and a following wind, the man who is neither Left nor Right may be about to earn his place in history.