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Macron in the Middle - June 05, 2018

In May 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected as the French President. Macron won the election after defeating far right candidate Marine Le Pen. During the election, Macron got support and endorsement from many quarters including the former US president Barack Obama, as well as from his radical left opponent Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who indirectly asked people not to vote for Le Pen. Macron won the election by a landslide margin of 66 percent, while Le Pen received 33 percent votes. However in the aftermath, France is witnessing a historic strike by railway workers, observing which, it can be asserted that the new poster-boy for the neoliberals, Emmanuel Macron, seems to be in trouble.

Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and former Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs from 2014 to 2016 started his own party ‘En Marche’. Macron declared that he is neither left nor right and will follow the middle path in politics. He used his presidential power in signing several reforms in the front of TV cameras, without holding any debates in the Parliament. In 2017, in the month of September, he announced reforms to the labour laws, which according to him are very rigid and not up to the ‘market standards’. These labour reforms intend to give more ‘freedom’ to employers to hire and fire their employees, ‘simplifying’ the negotiation process. Many labour unions fear that these reforms will weaken the bargaining strength of the unions.

As he completes a year in office, Macron has already faced severe criticism from many sides, especially in the recent railway workers strike. On April 3 this year, France’s railway workers started their three month long strike (two days off, three days on) against the government’s decision to reform the ‘French National Railway Corporation’ (SNCF), which functions under the government control. It must be mentioned that the SNCF runs €46.6bn in debts.

In an earlier interview, Macron said that the SNCF must be able to prepare itself for competition by 2021. This railway reform comes after the set up of a deadline by the European Union (EU) for the EU countries to liberalise their railway sector and open it for competition of passenger trains by 2020. On 22nd March 2018, within days after the controversial labour reforms, France witnessed a massive protest demonstration across the country. As estimated by the media, around 130 to 180 protests broke out where many angry protesters expressed their strong disapproval of these reforms. The public sector employees have been of the opinion that under these reforms around 12,0000 workers will lose their jobs by 2022, which is the deadline set up by the EU.

On March 14, the Macron government presented a bill to reform the SNCF. Under this new bill, the SNCF, which is now under the state, will be turned over to an autonomous institution backed by public money. The existing SNCF staffs will lose their special status as per the new bill, meaning the existing workers losing all their special benefits like travelling concession, pension with their family members no longer having access to any discounts. In the same token, the SNCF, under the new bill, will be in for market competition under the EU laws.

Many labour leaders and opposition party leaders have called this reform to be the first step towards privatising the railways sector, even while the Prime Minister of France, Edouard Philippe, have made assuring remarks suggesting that SNCF will not be privatized, persuading everyone that “the heritage of the French and will stay there". On the other hand, Prime Minister Philippe has added that the French people currently pay 30 percent more in train fares in comparison to other European railways, mentioning that the “French are paying more and more for a public service that works less and less well".

What was the Mandate for Macron?

Macron and his ministers have repeatedly been saying that their mandate is to reform the economy, reform and control unemployment, and that the new proposed bill is just a way forward to fulfill that very mandate that has been given to them by the people of the country. The relevant questions that emerge while debating the issue, revolve around understanding if the victory of Macron practically denotes a march towards further reforms as he mentions, while deconstructing what the mandate of the people of France has been, when they voted for Macron.

One must observe in this light that the votes and endorsement that Macron received during the Presidential election is but basically a mandate against the far right’s candidature of Le Pen, against who many progressive and left minded voters had caste their vote. Out of 47 million registered voters, 11 million voters did not turn up for voting. This is a mighty number, higher than the number of votes cast in favour of Le Pen. Also, 3 million voters, making up 8 percent of the electorate, had left blank papers.

Adding to that, around 1 million, that is 3 percent of the voters, had deliberately spoiled their ballot papers, making these to be the worst possible record for French election. Thus, it is but expected that Macron must read in-between the lines of the election result. Philippe Martinez, the leader of the strong railway union, has criticised Macron to be not only arrogant but also a friend of the rich. The latter allegation has been reflected in the light of in Macron’s famous interview given to Jean-Jacques Bourdin of RMC-BFM and Edwy Plenel of Mediapart, where he refused to condemn or take action on the wealthy French people who hide their money in tax havens. In this context, recent opinion polls suggest that around 58 percent people in France are not happy with his Presidency.

Contributing to the above has been the controversy around France’s decision to attack Syria for the latter’s alleged use of chemical weapon. Macron, while speaking in that context, told the reporters that ‘he pursued US President Trump to stay in Syria’. The decision to attack Syria by the French forces faced severe criticism from all political sections at home, including from the far right Le Pen and the radical left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. What Macron has been doing both at the domestic as well as at the level of foreign affairs is repeat the same path that his predecessor had taken. Courtesy the same, within a year of being in office, Macron has blown away all the support he received had received from the left and progressive section, not only at the domestic level in France, but also from across globe.

The French elections happened on background of the Brexit, which was championed by the conservative forces. A similar fate was avoided in France because of Macron’s centrist appeal. To fight against the social right, Macron has chosen the economic right, which can be summarized to be the root of all the problems which have been affecting the Western countries since 2008. The right wing economic model will further aggravate unemployment, which is already one of the main social problems in France. Slashing job opportunities, privatising the railways and increasing tax on pensions is a process through which a fertile ground is created for the far right to grow, a lesson Macron must learn from the experience of countries like India and the United States of America. Emmanuel Macron must not lose sight of the contingence that the middle path, that he has chosen to associate with, can be pulled either towards the left or the right, the choice of which by him shall be instrumental in determining the future of the country.

- Dr. V Lenin Kumar