As pressure from a number of fronts increases, Macron's position weakens, argues John Mullen
The second round of the French local elections, at the end of June, was bad news for Macron, whose candidates did very poorly. In response, launching the second, post-Covid half of his mandate, Macron switched Prime Minister, replacing high-profile operator Edouard Philippe with an unknown right-winger, Jean Castex, whose previous experience consisted mostly of being mayor of a town with 6 000 inhabitants. "I’m not looking for the limelight", confirmed Castex on the day of his appointment.
Meanwhile, mobilization for Black Lives, and working-class anger at austerity and job losses have marked the month since the raising of the lockdown. What are the prospects for the year to come?
For the last 25 years in France, since the great strikes of 1995 which saw the Paris metro shut down for a month, there has been regular mass resistance to the rise of neoliberalism and austerity. Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost; quite often the result of a particular conflict was neither really a victory nor really a defeat, as the government shelved important parts of their plans, without, naturally, announcing “you have frightened us!”
The general result can be seen in a couple of symbolic statistics. The 1.6 million university students in France pay between 200 and 300 euros a year in enrolment fees. The think tanks dream of introducing high tuition fees like in England or the USA, but the politicians dare not even suggest it.
Another example – pensioner poverty in France is four times lower than that in the UK. And, according to a UK House of Commons briefing paper from 2019, French full-time employees work, on average, three hours a week less than they do in the UK. Workers struggle has been able to slow down neoliberal barbarism.
The resistance movements are also a sign of a high level of class consciousness. During the fightback against Hollande’s 2016 Labour laws, for example, most of the strikers were not personally affected: many of the vicious new rules would only apply to future recruitments. Workers who already had a permanent contract or who were a little older could have said to themselves “Thank God it doesn’t affect me”.
Night after night on the television, expert commentators wondered at why the strikes went on, when so many strikers were “not personally affected”. TV commentators have a hard time figuring out class consciousness.
On the political side, this high level of class struggle has wrecked the political parties the ruling class had relied on for decades. First, president Sarkozy from the Right pushed through half the neoliberal attacks he wanted to, and was then defeated in the 2012 elections by Hollande from the Socialist Party who was promising “my real opponent is the world of finance”.
People hoped Hollande would be different, but he forced through a detested anti-Labour law scrapping long-held protections for millions. In the following, 2017, elections, the Socialist Party was crushed. Hollande did not dare even to stand again; the candidate who did stand, Benoit Hamon, left the Socialist Party after the election to form a new grouping.
And in the first round of the parliamentary elections, the Socialist Party, who were the outgoing government, got 7.4% of the votes cast: one point seven million votes, less than the two and a half million votes obtained by the radical Left movement La France Insoumise, less than the three million votes that went to the far-right National Front. The Socialist Party lost 250 of their 280 MPs.
Emmanuel Macron gathered together disappointed politicians of the right and hopeful careerists from the Socialist Party and with his new grouping “La République en Marche” got a clear majority in the parliament.
Macron’s plan was full spectrum Thatcherism, if with a smoother discourse. He wanted to radically weaken trade unions, cut benefits, take real power away from local government, privatize swathes of public services: whatever the opposition. And he was prepared to ramp up police violence to the worst in Western Europe if that would help.
The resistance was huge. The Yellow Vest movement inspired areas of the country and parts of the population who were not used to mobilizing. Then a new attack on pensions led to seven enormous strike days, and millions on the streets, with strikers in railways, education, manufacturing, hospitals and elsewhere. And the strikes were very popular – twice as many people supported them as opposed them, and the figures were even better in the working class.
Macron retreated on one important element: instead of the vicious new rules applying to everyone born after 1963, the prime minister announced, they would only apply to people born after 1975. The government hoped this would dampen down the movement: it didn’t. The strikes in January 2020 were massive. When the coronavirus crisis arrived, Macron shelved the reform. This has to count as a victory for our side. If there had been no resistance, it would have been passed many months before.
The coronavirus has killed 30 000 people in France. As the lockdonw is lifted, Macron has been announcing that “we have to be ready to reinvent ourselves” and promising to change. What we have mostly seen is huge amounts of money to prop up companies, and much less help for ordinary workers.
Already millions of people have been plunged into poverty because temporary jobs have disappeared. Now there are likely to be massive redundancies. The big aeronautic company Airbus is already threatening 15 000 redundancies, including 5000 of its 49 000 employees in France. Air France has announced 7500 job losses (16% of its workforce) despite receiving 7 billion euros in government-backed loans which most commentators think will never be fully repaid.
In other sectors, most companies have not yet announced their redundancy plans, but Nokia, Technicolor, and the pharmaceutical company Sanofi have already said they will be sacking hundreds of workers.
The government has been staving off bankruptcies and limiting extreme poverty by borrowing billions of euros. But in a few years, it will have to be paid back. This means more taxes for the rich or more suffering for the workers: no prizes for guessing which Macron is going to choose. He has already announced that he is not planning to raise taxes for the rich, even after having abolished an important wealth tax a couple of years back. His solution, he has declared, is that we need « to work more » and « to produce more ».
But he has to be careful. He is unpopular and people are angry. The government just announced six billion euros for low-paid nurses and hospital staff. It’s about a hundred euros a month each. Far from enough, and no talk of increasing staffing levels in hospitals, but it is a sign that Macron is under pressure.
In last week’s municipal elections, we saw record abstention rates. Fear of the virus was one factor, but mostly these abstentions reflected a disaffection with the main parties. This is why the Greens did so well, aided by the “localist” focus of much of their programme, which plays better in municipal elections than in national ones. Several big cities were taken by Green candidates. After 25 years having a right-wing mayor, Marseille was won by an alliance headed up by an ecologist. After 73 years of right-wing rule, Bordeaux also has an ecologist as mayor.
The far-right RN (previously the Front National) did not do well. Before these elections they had 1 468 councillors in 463 towns. Now they have 840 councillors in 258 towns. But they won control of a big town in the South, Perpignan, and they were re-elected in several towns they already held. The fascist losses are due to the period of acute class struggle, in which the RN cannot afford to take sides.
Although they made vague statements sympathetic to the Yellow Vests, they could not denounce police violence because of their huge base among the police. They could not support nor really oppose the pensions movement because the movement was popular, but small employers are crucial to their support networks.
The RN has, however, had a lot of success in persuading people that they are no longer fascists. By significant sections of the right they are now seen as potential partners. In Perpignan, when it was clear that the fascist candidate was going to win, three members of the local slate of Macron’s party declared support for the RN. We will see more alliances between the RN and traditional right, and flagship racist policies will be the result.
There was occasional good news for the Left. In Bordeaux, a joint list led by carworker Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist Party and by Evelyne Cervantes-Descubes from the France Insoumise, a long standing trade union activist, got 11.8% in the first round, 9.4% in the second round and now have three city councillors – the two I mentioned and a Yellow Vest activist who had his hand blown off by police weaponry last year.
The local elections were a blow for Macron, and he is also worried about the Black Lives Matter movement. Important demonstrations against police violence, and others demanding papers for undocumented migrants have hit the front pages this month.
In the last ten or fifteen years, a whole new set of antiracist networks have been set up, mostly led by young Black adults from the working-class parts of town. They have been able to lead demonstrations of tens of thousands, like the one in Paris on the 13th June, or last December’s first ever mass Paris demonstration against islamophobia.
The Adama committee is just one of them, set up to demand justice for a Black man murdered by the police. These groups will work with the radical Left but mutual mistrust is common. The leaders of the Adama committee are very much anticapitalist, decolonial and outward-looking in spirit. They organized joint actions last year with the Yellow Vests, signed a joint declaration with the CGT union federation about the legitimacy of revolt in the poor suburbs, and organized a long debate this month with France Insoumise MP, François Ruffin.
These new antiracist networks are very different to the rather dusty, extremely moderate, semi-establishment antiracist organizations of the past, and they are slowly pushing the radical Left into improving its antiracist activity, traditionally weak. There is a long way to go in France – Paris is covered with colonial statues, and there have been only small attempts to protest these, and islamophobia is a traditional blind spot of the French Left (despite slow progress in recent years).
Macron declared last week that no statues will be taken down, but this is hubris. There have already been changes in the names of schools named after Colbert, author of the notorious Black Code which was used to regulate slavery in France. The president also used his speech to squeal about the dangers of communitarianism and Black separatism.
Meanwhile, government spokespeople frequently repeat that police racism does not exist, and last month a mural in a Paris suburb with the words “police violence” on it led to an official regional police demand to have these words removed.
Between Macron’s worries about the antiracist revolt and his party’s defeat at the municipal elections, he is looking for something which will boost his poll ratings. This week he is busy switching Prime Minister and trumpeting out allegedly new proposals on the environment, but there is a lot of smoke and mirrors involved.
He is proposing a referendum to decide to rewrite the constitution so that environmental concerns are included at the beginning of the clauses about French values. The list of over a hundred proposals which he approved from a “citizens’ forum” do not mention nuclear power, and are mostly a matter of “we will recommend that companies be obliged to produce an annual audit on this and that”.
What about the vicious neoliberal reforms he shelved a couple of months back, including the pensions reform and an attack on unemployment benefits? It is not yet clear if he dares to bring identical proposals back into play immediately, but the neoliberal law on universities (which aims at reducing still further the number of permanent contracts and splitting universities into two categories – well-funded “centres of excellence” and second-rate universities for the less privileged classes) is being pushed into parliament in the autumn.
The new PM, Jean Castex, has just announced his intention to start up once more negotiations on pension reform, which Macron has said will be “transformed” but “not abandoned”.
Having pushed out his previous, high-profile, Prime Minister, Macron is no doubt indicating that he is intending to run the show alone. Pushing on with his Thatcherite combat in the storms of acute economic crisis and mass working class anger is going to be a bumpy ride. Let’s hope we can make him fall off his rollercoaster.
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John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
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