August is always a quiet month for news: parliament is closed, the government is on a two-week break and Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron were enjoying the charms of the balmy south in Marseille... yet the news cycle does not stop and the country is never completely asleep.
The rentrée and its fuss is approaching fast, fast enough to keep the editorialistes busy, and, after all, French people complain all the time. Even Napoleon said: “The French complain of everything, and always.”
Prior to the holidays, one of Mr Macron’s key pledges – a law to clean up political life – was passed in parliament after heated debate. It followed the scandal that mired presidential candidate François Fillon in ‘fictitious jobs’ allegations involving his Welsh wife, Penelope, and two of his children and, more generally corruption, and conflicts of interests scandals over the years that have dented trust in French politicians. The law prevents both MPs and ministers from employing family members as parliamentary assistants and saw mainly positive reactions in the press.
Yann Marec, in Midi Libre, said: “This new law does not intend to change MPs or senators but simply to draw lines that should not be crossed: mission accomplished for the government!”. In Libération, editor-in-chief Laurent Joffrin said: “En Marche in essence delivered on its promises, this measure has to be praised” but regretted “that the government is pulling its punches in the fight against lobbying”. François Ernenwein, of the Catholic daily La Croix, remained sceptical saying debates “raised more questions than answers” adding “MPs keep the monopoly on the range of sanctions for fiscal wrongdoing”.
The law banning the employing of family members came just as Brigitte Macron was given an official role in the presidency, although not the title of first lady. A transparency charter defining her duties focusing on disabled people, education, children, women’s issues, health and gender equality was published by the Elysée.
The move for the most part left editorialistes perplexed. In the daily L’Opinion, Nicolas Beytout complained that Mme Macron was only allowed “a charter not a status; financial means not a budget; councillors not a cabinet, the government thus chose nuances”. Slightly more aggrieved, the boisterous Christophe Barbier in the weekly L’Express, complained that the government had shown “a clear lack of boldness”. Barbier – who is also a regular editorialiste on the news channel BFM TV – believes “Brigitte could have definitely proved useful in the sphere of education” having been a French teacher for 30 years. In a nutshell, Barbier feels the charter “kicks down an open door”.
One voice that was silent was Marine Le Pen, whose Front National is mired in internal disputes. An enlightening piece in the online magazine Slate, said the French alt-right had failed.
Political analyst Gaël Brustier said the alt-right embodied by Béziers mayor and former journalist Robert Ménard, essayist Eric Zemmour and political advisor and historian Patrick Buisson, had been marginalised to the point where they were “merely reduced to writing pamphlets”.
The fires that savaged the Côte d’Azur and forced mass evacuations also sparked strong reaction from the regional press.
In the southwest, Jean-Marcel Bouguereau of La République des Pyrénées pushed governments to react: “Each year we have the feeling the fires are worse and worse, which is wrong as figures show that fires have become less destructive. Therefore, we must build European cooperation as these catastrophes do not have borders.”
Along the same lines, but in L’Alsace, Laurent Bodin said: “With global warming increasing the likelihood of fires, it has now become vital to build up fire barriers – already in place in the Landes forests, for instance, but still way too rare in the Bouches-du-Rhône.”
Similarly, L’Est Républicain’s Philippe Marcacci considers the fires are proof that global warming “is real with the groundwater levels at their lowest and the ground as dry and hard as rock.”
Hervé Chabaud in Ardennes paper L’Union said firefighters needed the means to fight fires, which meant modernising the water tanker fleet and, in the digital age, using software to manage firefighting resources. “It should be a new priority for the government despite the budget restrictions given that the safety of the population is now at stake.”
The government’s next target is the Code du travail and moves to create more flexibility in the job market. Political commentator Alain Duhamel, on RTL, saw the reform as a way for Mr Macron to restore his presidential authority and formalise social liberalism.
On the other side of the spectrum, communist daily L’Humanité, through the voice of Michel Guilloux vowed to fight alongside the unions.
With this and fiscal reforms including the reduction in the CSG social charge, the partial suppression of the Taxe d’habitation coming up as well as a plan to reform university entry the Elysée is expecting an interesting rentrée… Will the commentators be able to keep pace?