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Strikes will continue until public mood truly changes

We reach the first anniversary of Emmanuel Macron’s election with him apparently trying to undo the economic damage done to France by the Fourth and Fifth republics: which means, above all, breaking the power of the trade unions

A land that has reviled “Anglo-Saxon economics” seems, stealthily, to be embracing them as the means to tackle France’s debt problem.

Fifty billion euros of that debt is owed by the SNCF, the state-controlled railway: but President Macron has said that in return for accepting certain reforms – including the loss of extravagant perks such as free travel for life for railway workers and their families – the government will write off the debt. That is bad economics – the existing debt will become a burden on the French taxpayer, and the SNCF will doubtless accrue a new one – but at least it is a start. It is, though, only a start.

Those prepared militantly to support outdated working practices are a small minority.

Commentators assert that the numbers protesting have fallen since the SNCF began a three-month programme of strikes. The strike – which will, with summer, increasingly hit France’s economically vital tourist trade – has been mirrored in universities. With the 50th anniversary of les événements of 1968, some teenage radicals at the Sorbonne and elsewhere seem to have gone back in time. 

They, too, try to defend a system without logic and that wastes a vast amount of taxpayers’ money, and which M Macron hopes to reform. At the moment, irrespective of merit or ability, French students can go to whichever university they wish. Many are unequal to the course they choose and drop out, which accounts for much of the waste.

But it also squanders France’s human capital by not using criteria adopted by other developed countries to match individuals with a course or training that will maximize their potential. And it explains why French universities languish in the lower reaches of international league tables.
M Macron is to be applauded for a reform that will not only help the economy and boost individual accomplishment and prosperity, but which is also likely to improve the standing and reputation of France’s tertiary education.

Given the militant students have no industrial clout, it will be a matter of supreme indifference to most French whether they attend their lectures or not and a surprise if M Macron does not prevail. But the cheminots of the SNCF are another matter. They are fighting not merely for their own privileges, but are the advance guard of the whole French labour movement in confronting M Macron’s determination to bring industrial practices into the 21st century.

The argument that enthusiasm among the cheminots for the strike programme is waning awaits substantiation by events. And so, too, does the claim by some supporters that he is a French Margaret Thatcher. As the joke goes, “Senator, I knew Margaret Thatcher. And M Macron is no Margaret Thatcher.”
When Mrs Thatcher faced down the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-85 she had a moment such as M Macron hopes to engineer by taking on the cheminots. In Britain thereafter strike action became infrequent – not just because other unions became wary of striking, but because the public mood in Britain was changing. The country was moving out of heavy industry and towards more highly-skilled employment, and towards the service industries: it was becoming more middle class in fact and in outlook. And so any strike knew it started with a huge lack of public support, and risked losing what little it did have.

Anyone who lived through the 1980s in Britain knows France has not yet reached that moment. Mrs Thatcher set out to break a consensus in which government and management were deferential to the workers, and which had lasted for 35 years since the war. The cast of mind M Macron has to break has lasted nearly 75 years, since the end of the occupation; and his style of government since he was elected has done little to smooth his path.

Mrs Thatcher took on the miners in her second term in office, after years of persuading the public that reform had to happen and after years of planning to ensure the strike would not bring Britain to a standstill.

M Macron talks in vague, pseudo-philosophical terms about what he wants to do; but he does so from a position of neo-monarchical disengagement. His public relations skills – something the Thatcher government excelled at – are at best third rate; with the result that a recent poll says that 52 per cent of French people regret he was elected.

My prediction is that the SNCF strike will drag on until a resolution that both sides will present as a victory. Therefore it will change little.

Nicolas Sarkozy tried, too, to reform the French economy in his first year in office, and gave up when he realised the French public could not stomach the grief entailed, and would make life hard for him.

Like Sarko, and unlike Mrs Thatcher, M Macron is not ideological: and, like Sarko, his lack of conviction will make it hard to drive change through in the way that Mrs Thatcher did. If he wants to reform France he must reform attitudes. That requires a serious engagement with the public.

Like Mrs Thatcher - if he realizes he has to engage properly - he will probably have to aim to transform France in a second term: if he gets one.

Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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