All of Europe is confronting social and political difficulties caused by a combination of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the aftermath of the pandemic.
It is especially unfortunate for President Macron that these come when he has no majority in the Assemblée Nationale, and a vulture-like set of opponents who have decided to hate him more than they hate each other.
They are making him the scapegoat for every difficulty France faces. Some problems are not his fault, and it is hard to make a case that anything he has done has made matters worse than they would be.
France damaged and angry
However, as France becomes more damaged by industrial action and its people more angry, the government is the obvious target for those who seek something or someone to take it out on.
And the president is further goading his enemies by forcing through a budget after the Assembly’s refusal to do so.
They challenge his commitment to democracy; he challenges their sense of responsibility as he tries to carry on a serious government. Britons will view France’s 6.2% inflation rate as a luxury, compared with the 10.1% in the UK.
British rates are higher thanks to a ridiculous degree of economic mismanagement, but also an initial determination to have British consumers bear the rise in energy prices (a policy that changed, and is changing again) to a degree that the Macron administration decided was not politically feasible.
One day the French will find the proverbial ticket collector standing at the top of escalator, and the bill will be presented.
With luck, M. Macron can postpone that until after he can dissolve the Assembly, hold new elections and hope for a better outcome.
Sense of France in turmoil
That can’t happen before next June: and the way he is being turned on by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from opposite extremes, the sense of a France in turmoil, or perhaps before long chaos, may spread.
If it does, the likelihood of M. Macron persuading his electorate to choose candidates who support him will diminish, and he could end up even more beleaguered after such a poll than he is now.
France has attracted international attention because of the consequences of a walkout by operatives at oil refineries owned by the fuel giant TotalEnergies, making many filling stations run dry.
France’s popularity as a holiday destination is not confined to July and August, and there is anecdotal evidence from tourist attractions that customers from France and adjoining countries who choose autumn to visit them are staying at home or going elsewhere.
Inevitably, the effect on the national economy of those who wish to get to work or to the shops, never mind have a recreational experience, has been dire.
The French government, faced with 30% of filling stations out of service, has used the power of requisition to force some refineries to re-open: this further provoked the trade unions, and – if the pun can be forgiven – provided an enormous amount of extra fuel for the fire that M. Mélenchon has lit under M. Macron.
The hard left have not had it all their own way, however: a general transport strike called for October 18 in support of the oil refinery workers, to protest against the government’s use of requisitions to force refineries and depots to open, and for good measure (and its public relations) to demand more action on climate change, was nowhere near so well observed as the unions had hoped.
Two unions involved in the oil dispute seem willing to settle, but the militant CGT union – which has M. Mélenchon’s backing, and vice versa – was slower to offer concessions.
Could be some ugly confrontations
The courts have upheld the requisitioning powers, and if tensions continue to rise there could be some ugly confrontations. It is quite likely that, with the help of his union comrades, M. Mélenchon is simply in the early stages of a programme of harassment aimed at undermining the President in the hope of making electoral capital when an election next occurs.
The cost of living, demands for higher salaries and general political opportunism are causing other unions to threaten industrial action, among them the SNCF, which would if carried out lead to further economic damage and paralysis.
It remains to be seen how extensive any such action would be, and whether unions thus far not engaged in seeking to hobble the administration will feel minded to join in. M. Macron still promises to raise France’s retirement age, which might be provocation enough.
The CGT claimed after the day of action that it had offered to talk with TotalEnergies about pay and conditions; the employers refused to countenance talks, which suggests they were aware that the strike was crumbling.
Some refineries went back to work that day. It was the eve of the school half-term holidays, and people with children they might want to drive around and entertain during the holidays also have votes.
The unions must throughout this or any other industrial action make a judgement weighing up the damage done to the government against the damage done to M. Mélenchon’s electoral prospects – in which the labour movement has an enormous vested interest.
On the left, he is the last man standing. There are, potentially, worse problems ahead than being unable to fill up the Renault.
Workers for EDF, the power company currently being nationalised, are also threatening industrial action, with winter imminent and a war on against the region’s main energy supplier.
Subsidies on fuel and power can’t last forever, as the British government has found.
M. Macron’s best bet is to seek to get the public onside, probably best done by challenging the political sense and good faith of his opponents.
He is not dealing with entirely rational people, and that is why, in the weeks ahead, anything could happen.
Simon Heffer is a regular columnist with The Connexion. He is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph