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‘Strikes highlight the mess at the heart of French politics’

As strikes and disruption multiply in France, columnist Richard Ogier asks what President Macron, and his opponents, are going to do next

Five months after the French legislative elections, the French political modus operandi for the next five years remains uncertain. 

Read more: Easy look graphic: how seats in France's new parliament are divided

The modus vivendi, however, is becoming clearer. Amid strikes and further disruption in critical sectors (oil refineries, public utilities and transport), febrility could be described as a keyword. 

The crisis has made obvious numerous political and societal issues for France and beyond: a still diabolical dependence on the petrol model motor car despite the climate emergency; energy multinationals reluctant to accord pay rises amid record profits; the inherent limits of both French minimum service legislation and French corporatism, where workplaces host multiple major unions for whom so-called majority agreements don’t mean much. 

France, like the rest of Europe, is racked by the energy crisis post-pandemic, though has coped comparably well due to the government’s early-stage Keynesian policy and especially the €47billion ‘energy price shield’ (rather than, as across the Channel, the economic non-sequitur of lower taxes followed by unfunded energy subsidies). 

Level of support unparalleled in Europe

To borrow from Le Monde, France has provided its citizens with a level of financial support and protection unparalleled in Europe. 

And yet the hard-left opposition of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ‘Nupes’ is urging a rudderless “convergence of fights” against the catch-all of “expensive life”, while blaming the government. 

Read more: Macron an easy scapegoat for France’s political and social unrest

This could be politely called a broad-brush endorsement of pure protest, that the latest public opinion polling shows the majority of French do not like. 

A florilège of Mélenchonian tweets, and one in particular last month, in which he called on protesters to “do better” than the women in October 1789 who marched on Versailles and forced the king and his family to return to Paris, was widely interpreted as a thinly-veiled call to citizen violence. 

Why was there not simply a press conference called to clarify? Because French political culture is often words left to hang in the air as pundits rush in like jesters at court, falling over each other to interpret what, in this case, the kingly ‘Mélenchon’ might have meant. 

On the mainstream right, Les Républicains (LR) have called for a conciliatory style while dismissing Macron’s National Council for Refoundation — his attempt at a more conciliatory style — as a “gadget” and a “machin” (a “thingy”). The party is not, its scions have told us, merely a supplement to government. 

Except that exactly, or even remotely, what LR might be proposing is unclear. This could be construed as a rather pressing issue for the party, given that they haven’t produced much in the way of new ideas for about 15 years as their electoral fortunes have continued to plummet. 

The further LR has moved to the right, the harder it’s become to get their hands on the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen; that is, to hold it still long enough to land a major blow upon it. 

They do, though, seem to spend inordinate amounts of energy on the psychodrama of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his role and influence as senior party elder. 

The debate could be summarised thus: a marvellous president he was, but is it not time, as Freud would have it, for the metaphorical “killing of the father”? 

Out further right, Madame Le Pen is doing her best to ‘detoxify’. The detoxified right, after all, has the wind behind it. 

Just look at what Giorgia Meloni has managed in Italy or what the misnomer of the ‘Swedish Democrats’ have achieved up north. 

Le Pen ‘the Reasonable One’

The bizarre spectacle is of Le Pen in the role of the Reasonable One because already positioning for the next presidential election in 2027. 

Not as a repository of protest, but an entirely comprehensible good sense ‘alternative’. After Macron, she’s hoping that a majority of the French will see her as the only one they haven’t tried. 

Many may well do. More alarming, perhaps, is the President’s governing coalition. Thanks to a constitutional change ushered in by Jacques Chirac, not otherwise the most energetic of reformers, no French President can run for a third term. 

So Macron’s Knights at his King’s Table are already arguing that he’s en route for the exit sign. Of course, knowing that he’s going might lead him to behave in a way he wouldn’t if he weren’t — his eyes on the history books. 

Read more: French politics: Macron is in office but he is not in power

But this is conjecture. At this stage, the President’s modus operandi (yes, his too) is unclear. His modus vivendi, however, might be said to be constant movement. 

But for what? 

At a critical juncture in his presidency, he’s playing his cards close to his chest. At least for the moment.

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