Domestic reform agenda is Macron’s priority
“He’s a cat. You throw him through the window and he manages to fall on his feet.”
That is how Alain Minc, an old acquaintance, describes the most modern coming of age in modern French politics. Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president of France in more than 150 years, has seized control of parliament after his recently created party En Marche! won a majority of seats in the legislative elections.
The 350 En Marche! deputies include a higher proportion than previous governments of women and professionals who had never before stood in an election. However, the 57% rate of abstention suggests that many electors are bored with a long drawn-out electoral process. Some observers said it was evidence of a dormant hostility towards the new president and his reforms.
France’s strong links with the Maghreb are symbolised by the youngest member of the government, a self-taught digital guru from a poor immigrant family from Morocco. Mounir Mahjoubi stemmed a vast cyber-attack, believed to have originated in Russia, against the En Marche! website during the presidential campaign.
The new minister of public affairs and public accounts, Gérald Darmanin is of mixed Algerian-Maltese background. Several new deputies are of North African origin, all of which confirms that political integration in France is far from dead.
The president’s visit to break the Ramadan fast with the king of Morocco offered positive symbolism of respect for Islam at a time of frequent terrorist attacks in Europe but relations with the Maghreb will not figure among Macron’s immediate priorities — these are exclusively domestic due to his heavy calendar of reforms.
The leaders of the two extreme parties — Marine Le Pen for the National Front (with eight deputies) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon for La France insoumise (LFI), (which has 17 deputies) — in the new assembly have argued that fewer voters mean less legitimacy for the new head of state and his government.
Soul searching awaits the National Front, which fell short of the 15-seat threshold needed to be recognised as a parliamentary group and get speaking time and additional resources. The voice of the LFI leader will be heard loudly in parliament and on the streets. He argues that the president has “no legitimacy to perpetrate a social coup.”
The forces ranged against the president in parliament are meagre, which feeds, in Mélenchon’s mind, the hope that opposition to the labour laws will come from being opposed in the street.
A note of caution is in order because, for the first time since its creation a century ago, the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) supplanted the more hard-line General Confederation of Labour (CGT) as France’s biggest union by winning the largest share of worker representatives in the private sector last winter. This has put CFDT leader Laurent Berger, who said his union’s momentum provides a historic chance to overhaul France’s often conflict-ridden labour relations and move it closer to the more collaborative German model, in the spotlight.
The five key reforms that will make or break the presidency include reforming the labour code, unemployment benefits and job training, pensions and labour charges, making Europe great again and making the state of emergency permanent.
The key new labour legislation would mean an unprecedented decentralisation of labour relations to enable companies to react more easily to economic fluctuations and give employers more freedom to negotiate on working hours, overtime and wages with their employees rather than comply with sector-based rules. Lay-offs would be eased and damages that judges can impose on employers in case of wrongful decisions would be capped.
Macron wants the government to wrest back control over a benefit system co-managed by unions and business representatives, whose crass mismanagement has put it $37 billion in debt. Further reforms on pensions and labour charges could fuel strong opposition.
The street’s view is: The status quo is terrible but must never change. Immobilisme, as the French call it, is, therefore, not an accident; it is the system. Will Macron break out of this self-perpetuating cycle? The failure of the past three presidents does not condemn him to fail.
Despite their small number of deputies, both extreme parties, maybe with the help of the CGT, will put up a fight. The National Front has seen its vote halved between the presidential and the legislative elections. Its two bastions remain the northern rust belt of France and the south. The disappointment of its militants are hard to disguise. The National Front knows that its message of rejection of the European Union has fallen on stony ground. It remains a protest movement on the margins of French political life but, if Macron fails, its leaders could opt for la politique du pire.
The Socialist Party, with 44 deputies, has been mauled and will have to reinvent itself. Caught between those in its ranks, including former ministers from François Hollande’s government who have moved to Macron’s movement and the harsh criticism of Mélenchon, that will be no easy matter.
The conservative Republicans fared better but their 137 deputies are divided between those who want to work, à la carte so to speak, with Macron and those who feel more comfortable hugging Le Pen’s more overtly racist, anti-European and pessimistic vision. The three left-wing parties strongly dislike Macron’s intention of writing powers that come with the state of emergency into regular law.
As for his ambitious plans to reform the European Union and push for more integration among its core members, they will have to wait until after the German elections next September. Before that, the new president has to show his mettle on domestic reform. That will be the acid test of his presidency.
Comparing Macron to Louis XIV is wide off the mark. It is true that the modern Parisian elite has the size and density of the old royal court and that its outer moat is the Boulevard Périphérique ring road but the victory of this rookie politician, however much he may belong to that elite, suggests that Immobilisme is not necessarily inscribed in France’s DNA.