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Opinion World

Fire and Fury: The Failure of France’s President for the Rich

When Emmanuel Macron was elected President of France in May 2017, it was considered a victory for liberals everywhere. The right wing populist Marine Le Pen was handily defeated by the young and slick former finance minister by 66 percent to 33. Bucking the prevalent trend of the last few years, it looked like Macron’s brand of business friendly internationalism had warned off the French right’s isolationist agenda. There was once again hope for European liberalism.

That hope, however, was not universal. As a passionate crowd began to assemble in front of the Louvre, ready to hear their chosen-one’s victory speech, union workers clashed with authorities on the other side of Paris.

From the protests of that night, to the anger of the recent Gilets jaunes protests, there have been two constant truths. Firstly, the living standards of France’s working class have remained painfully deprived, with little sign of relief for those who are poorest. Secondly, he has remained purposefully ignorant to the genuine concerns of his constituents. If he continues to govern as he has so far, his administration will be defined by its complicity in the face of poverty. The joy of May 2017 will inevitably be met by the pain of 2022, when President Le Pen takes the mantle of power, and permanently stains the honour of the French Fifth Republic.

The Rothschild Banker Makes his Mark

The workers who clashed with authorities on the night of the presidential election had a great deal to fear. For decades, France has been something of a refuge for the international working class. As Thatcher worked to systematically weaken the British unions in the 1980s, the socialist president Francois Mitterrand was inviting communists into his first administration. The strong socialist tradition in France, contrary to the the strong Christian-Democratic tradition that defined political life in its bordering countries, allowed frenchmen to survive with generally better prospects than their neighbours. The workers of Germany weren’t protected by a minimum wage until 2015 and, in Italy, the working week is capped at 48 hours—far greater than France’s maximum of 35.

Protections for French workers are codified. The rights of frenchmen are not left to collective bargaining with individual companies, but established in the comprehensive and nationally enforced Code du Travail—the Code of Work. Even for workers in non-unionised industries, collective agreements won in another sector may be determined to apply to them too, meaning that over 95% of employees are protected by collective bargaining agreements. Furthermore, in the event of conflict between an individual employment agreement and the Code du Travail, the provisions more favourable to the employee apply. All of these laws helped establish France as an exemplary place to work.

To the cash-strapped men and women who are protected by these hard fought victories, Macron posed a threat. Throughout his presidential campaign, he promised to do away with sector level negotiations, favouring in-house negotiations between workers and their employers and depriving larger unions like La Confédération générale du travail of some of their power. He also promised to do away with laws that protect workers employed by larger companies, such as the different regulations imposed on firms of 50 people or more. The list was long and comprehensive, but throughout all of his proposed reforms there was one consistency. Macron’s reforms would benefit the employer, to the detriment of the employed—an act of betrayal to the French society he swore to protect.

In September 2017, Macron signed many of his reforms into law, leading to outcry among the public and inevitable cheers from boardrooms throughout France. Thomas Breda, a French expert on labour economics from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, wrote shortly after that they would “open the door to numerous abuses in situations where employees are unable to defend themselves.” What Macron did was freely expose his own citizens to abuse. Where they would previously have been protected, Macron ensured that the weakest in society would be vulnerable.

Macron did this all in the name of economic growth, on the increasingly outdated view that the economy can be judged by the NASDAQ and the FTSE, rather than the wealth of the poorest citizen. Whether the reforms benefit the “economy,” as he defines it, is yet to be seen. What is certain, however, is that they will not benefit those who are in dire need of economic relief.

It is no surprise he has been branded the “president for the rich” by many in the French press. The former president, Francois Hollande, when asked recently if this accusation against Macron was a fair one, took the charge one step further. “C’est pas vrai,” he angrily replied; he is not the president of the rich, but the president of the very rich. It is worth remembering that Hollande hired Macron as a member of his cabinet, apparently unaware of the pain he would eventually unleash.

Far from being the liberal saviour he was capriciously praised to be, he has established himself as the new face of trickle down economics. The hurtful right wing revolutions of Reagan and Thatcher, from which France was protected by President Mitterand in the 80s, find fresh blood in Macron: the president who cares more about lining the pockets of the rich than ensuring his constituents don’t go hungry.

Boiling Point

The French are evidently aware of their president’s actions and, for those who are poor and risk losing their rights, it’s hard not to be. Since the start of the Gilets Jaunes movement in November, 2018, hundreds of thousands of French people have taken to the streets with their demands. These are not radical aggressors asking for a new world order or a revolution in French society, but merely workers asking that their rights are not taken away. They are not so much looking to the future, but avoiding a return to the past. Among their demands include the reinstatement of the wealth tax abolished with the reforms and, ultimately, the resignation of Macron. After all, he is the man who risks driving them to the protectionless past of laissez-faire French liberalism.

Just as the protests on the night of his election were a taster of the Gilets Jaunes protests, so might they be a precursor to a far greater struggle. The protestors number in the hundreds of thousands, but have the support of millions. One poll puts favorability of the protests as high as 84% and, in what was the highest viewership in French political history, Macron’s response to the unrest was watched by 23 million people. Given that his current approval rating stands at only 26%, if Macron’s administration doesn’t start to listen to the people, the number out in the street will only grow.

So far, Macron’s response has been one of appeasement, notably by promising a minimum wage increase and removing taxes on any overtime work throughout 2019. But these slim promises are utterly insufficient in the face of a lower class that continues to get poorer, even as productivity increases. He must not only halt, but undo the self described “copernican revolution” he has started in France’s economy. The people of France will not, and should not, accept economic policies that go against their interests.

Bienvenue, Présidente Le Pen

The champions of the so-called liberal world order, of the pro-European globalists who are favourable to business and count within their ranks Tony Blair, Matteo Renzi and Emmanuel Macron, are seemingly blind to the oncoming storm. Recently Mr. Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, boldly said that liberalism was not dead. He argued that it was possible to be pro-business and support the interests of the working class. Whether by choice or by foolishness, he is seemingly ignorant to the connection between his policies and the continued deprivation of the British poor. Like Blair, the French president risks making the same mistake. Blair’s failure should stand as a stark warning to Macron—for nine years after Blair’s resignation, the opposing Conservative Party had a majority in the House of Commons and Britain had voted to leave the European Union.

Before the 2017 election, columnists and commentators who were ready to write liberalism’s obituary put down their pens, but didn’t throw out their drafts. It is now up to Macron to ensure that his election was more than a reprieve from an inevitable fall towards conservative populism. It should be obvious to Macron that his inaction will ultimately lead to a right wing populist government. The transition from tepid centrism to a conservative extreme has become so common that it verges on becoming the new normal of international politics. Italy’s Matteo Renzi gave us Giuseppe Conte, Austria’s Christian Kern gave us Sebastian Kurz, and, most recently, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff gave us Jair Bolsonaro. If he does nothing to help common people, let alone if he continues to hurt them, Macron will ensure we see a President Marine Le Pen in 2022.