France’s Youngest President Macron Now Facing Oppositon, Demonstrations and Strikes over his Business-Friendly Reforms and Defends Himself to CNN

Macron Amanpour

Photo Credits: Mick Krever/CNN

By Axel Krause
Paris, September 19, 2017

Last Tuesday, France’s presidential Airbus landed at the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe carrying not only some twelve tons of humanitarian aid for the nearby hurricane-ravaged French-allied islands, notably Saint Martin, but the nation’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

Earlier that morning he learned, not happily, of massive, trade union-led demonstrations throughout France challenging his proposals for substantially overhauling the nation’s long-established labor codes in order to spark lackluster economic growth.

The well-publicised visit to the Caribbean by Macron was apparently timed to draw media attention to his emerging image as an international leader who cared, mattered, and distanced from the protest demonstrations; which coincided with his steadily-falling popularity in nationwide polls; rapid and unequaled as the New York Times, among others, noted.

Confirming impressions gained from our interviews, the leftist-leaning Paris daily Liberation today reported on a nationwide poll it organized, showing that showed 60% of those French voters who answered believe that the government’s labor reform proposals will add significantly to the (employment) fragility of those who work ; and that 68% believe they support firing by employers.

Last week’s demonstrations took the form of union-organized marches, reaching from Paris to Marseilles, as some of the 230,000 workers, students, academics, bureaucrats marching told me repeatedly that their main goal was, not higher wages, but a withdrawal of the complex labor-reform package, that is widely supported by business and conservative leaders in France. Enthused by Mr. Macron’s goal of creating what he termed a « Copernican revolution » (a reference to the 15th-century Polish-born astronomer who concluded that the sun and not the earth is the center of our solar system) that would transform France into a « start-up nation. »

And, many critics warned, even greater protests and strikes were planned, starting this coming weekend. « This is a government of amateurs, » one angry labor leader said, « who have anticipated nothing; » others wore badges brushing off as insulting Mr.Macron’s recent public description of those striking and demonstrating as « faineants, » meaning slackers, lazy, idle, or in British parlance – layabouts.

Some posters carried by marchers referred to his « social aggression. » Philippe Martinez, leader of the formerly-Communist linked union the CGT spearheading Tuesday’s protests, termed Macron’s controversial epithet « scandalous. »

Yet, determined to succeed, the 39 year-old, former investment banker and economy minister in the previous Socialist government, who handily won the French presidency in May, remains committed to a longtime, mind-boggling ambitious yet elusive cause : streamlining, the entrenched, privileged, costly French bureaucracy, rules and protectionist traditions strongly defended by the nation’s trade unions and leftists.

What is involved, according to the head of France’s biggest employers federation, the Medef, is nothing less than the « future of our economy and we need to get going quickly, » Pierre Gattaz claims repeatedly. This is the « last chance to reform the labor market…we must not become like the UK and the US. »

Indeed, as Britain’s Economist noted, Macron’s goal is nothing less than changing « France’s psychology » working to exorcise « some of the country’s most troublesome demons » starting with the rigid labor codes ; (contained in 3,448-pages) the government proposals would give companies more flexibility to negotiate working conditions; capping court-awarded payments for unfair firing, simplifying worker representation in companies ; the proposed reforms would allow small companies to ignore union agreements and negotiate directly with employees.

These and other, highly-controversial proposals, such as hiking some taxes and cutting others, magazine rightly noted, represents « a radical turnaround, not just because of the technical changes to labor law that should help firms in France….it also represents a shift in thinking that could have been unimaginable even a year ago. »

The reform package, in the form of decrees, will be implemented soon and easily since Macron’s « En Marche » party have a comfortable majority in the National Assembly.

Nevertheless, the implications of what-comes-next beyond protest demonstrations, involve the key question of whether or not the reforms will stimulate growth beyond the current level of just under 2% and lower unemployment level of 9.4% ; but also involve Mr. Macron’s self-styled, often arrogant-sounding calls for streamlining and reforming institutions of the European Union.

In a long, late-August interview with the French weekly Le Point, in sharp contrast to the upbeat, comforting narrative outlined by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his state-of-the-union address to the European Parliament on Wednesday, Mr.Macron said: « Today, Europe functions badly, sometimes worse…I want a Europe that is a continent (with powers) on the order of magnitude along the lines of (those practiced) by America and China. »

He has repeated his often-stated goal of establishing new EU powers to protect companies in strategic sectors (such as energy, transport and those defense-related) citing possible imposition of prohibitive, defensive tariffs as France already does.

Mr. Macron also has indicated that France and Germany are agreed on building a new, supersonic jet fighter plane, possibly with others, representing what he termed « a true revolution, » ignoring, however, that the two previous German-British-led European jet fighter-bombers, the Tornado and Eurofighter are operational and have been exported, which France opposed, favoring its Rafale fighter.

On the EU political front, Mr. Macron has repeatedly stated that in the interests of establishing greater European monetary and economic clout on the world economy, the currently19-nation eurozone should be given new, sweeping powers : a budget, a minister and its own parliament that would establish « democratic control » over what supporters of the idea refer to as a « European government. » built around the EU’s single currency, the euro, and its governing body the Eurogroup, currently headed by the former finance minister of the Netherlands, Jerooen Dijsslbloem.

Is Mr. Macron on a collision course with the European Commission and the 28 member countries of the EU, including, of course, Britain? The reason I believe is yes on some key issues, no on others.

As you might expect, France’s European Commissioner for Economy and Finance Pierre Moscovici, a former Socialist finance minister, strongly defended Juncker’s policy outlined to the European Parliament Wednesday, firmly telling journalists in Paris Fridays that there are absolutely no fundamental differences between Macron and Juncker. Their views are complementary, he declared.

Yes, Juncker did concede that the current state of EU being, to say the least, remains « preoccupant. » and yet at the same time has somewhat stronger economic growth than the United States of around 2% with unemployment at its lowest levels in nine years. Most important, he added in sharp contrast to Macron’s pessimistic assessment, « Europe has renewed wind in its sails. » Meaning an EU « « stronger, more united and democratic in its operations.

Turning to the controversial issue of future governance, Juncker addressed the question of the Eurogroup, arguing that it should be expanded beyond the 19 that use the currency, so that eventually all EU members, current, and future, can join. « The euro has as a responsibility to become the common currency for the entire European Union, » he said.

He did not mention it, but the EU finance ministers comprising the Eurogroup and their governments, notably Germany, have already reportedly agreed informally to seriously work on establishing some kind of budget and selecting a new president when Mr. Disslbloem steps down. It is no secret that Mr. Moscovici is seriously interested in the job.

Moreover, Juncker said that in his view, and probably other member states, a European Minister of Economy and Finance, if it is ever agreed upon, should not necessarily involve creating a new top job. What he suggests is merging the job Mr. Moscovici currently has, adding the title of Vice President with that of the Eurogroup president. Macron may clarify his proposal in a formal presentation of his EU views September 26, two days after Germany’s election that will determine if Mrs. Merkel continues as chancellor; she is widely expected to win

But Mr. Juncker made it clear in his speech that « we have no need for parallel structures »and not even a separate Eurogroup members-only budget as Mr. Macron has suggested, adding « and I have no sympathy for the idea of a parliament comprising only Eurogroup member states. The parliament of the eurozone is the European Parliament, » he declared.

Polls on both sides of the Atlantic have been proven wrong before, but there is no denying that a majority of the French voting public have not really connected with Mr. Macron’s ambitious agenda, and his way of handling himself in public that smacks of traditional, technocratic style of governing, with its roots in pre-Revolutionary history and the haughty style of former president Charles de Gaulle I first encountered as a newcomer correspondent in Paris in the early 1960s.

The answer for starters should be better PR, explaining why his reforms, while potentially painful for many, are nevertheless in the best interests of the country.

He made a step in that direction yesterday – an exclusive interview with CNN. Responding to international correspondent London-based Christiane Amanpour in decent English, conflicting head-on with President Donald Trump on everything from climate change, to Iran, North Korea and commenting on his marriage to his considerably-older wife, Brigitte, Mr. Macron said:« love is part of what guarantees my personal balance. I am lucky to have a person who tells me the truth every day. »

Addressing most of the issues raised in my reporting for this article, he also explained the protests and poor showing in the polls, declaring: « I will apply my reforms for France. I believe in democracy, but this is not made on the street. I could not care less about my popularity. I respect those who demonstrate, but I also respect those French voters who (in May) voted for change. What’s important is sticking with my engagements and to explain them…the difference with my predecessors. »

Axel Krause, the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Magazine, has covered France and Europe for decades, as correspondent and editor for Business Week and the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of Inside the Ne Europe.

 

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