Every conservative French president dreams of a Maggie Thatcher Moment – a time when they might finally achieve what Britain’s Iron Lady did in the 1980s.
This would mean smashing the power of the unions, and generally turning France into a tougher, more competitive country.
Previous right-wing heads of state, and most recently Nicolas Sarkozy, failed miserably. They had the sound bites (Sarko’s was ‘Work harder to earn more’) but never the guts to stand up to organised labour.
Pledged reforms were withdrawn at the first sign of industrial action, while street demonstrations up to and including rioting always terrified ministers. How odd, then, that it is now a mild-mannered independent who is already succeeding where the Gaullists never could. Emmanuel Macron is not just pontificating but – in the face of some of the largest protests in years – is actually starting to transform France.
Strikes last September did not stop him passing laws that make it easier for firms to hire and fire.
Now he is up against workers at SNCF, France’s state-owned railway, in a dispute being compared to Thatcher’s era-defining tussle with UK coal miners in the mid-80s. Mr Macron sees no reason why a company with €46.6billion of debt should allow workers such benefits as automatic annual pay rises, protection from dismissal, retirement as early as 52, and free tickets for close family.
He is determined to get rid of cushy employment contracts to open SNCF to competition from other countries in 2023, in line with new European Union requirements. The difference is that Macron, unlike Thatcher, is being thoroughly non-confrontational about it all. He is well aware that less than 12% of France’s workforce is unionised, and that there is little appetite for a whole summer of disruption.
Just as pertinently, polls show the majority of people do not want him to back down over SNCF. IFOP research in April put the pro-reform figure at 62% nationally, and as high as 90% among Mr Macron’s LREM voters.
Commuters in and around cities like Paris are sick and tired of overcrowded and unpunctual trains, and realise the network needs urgent overhaul. Millions of people are equally frustrated as they prepare for holidays, especially during the sacrosanct August break, when the railways are at their busiest. Here, anger caused by weeks of cancellations is thus far more likely to play in Mr Macron’s favour.
Beyond this, the strikes are also highlighting how the entire nature of work is changing, with many now able to get a lot done at home with their laptops instead of heading off on public transport. The proliferation of ‘co-working’ spaces close to where people live has led to the decidedly Anglo-Saxon expression entering the French language.
Organising vast movements into an effective political tool is becoming far harder, while the governments who oppose the workers are also less easy to define as unfeeling reactionaries.
Yes, Mr Macron spent some time as a former merchant banker, but there is very little evidence he is cultivating his own fortune, as predecessors were prone to do. He does not own any property, is never seen at flash restaurants with captains of industry, and spends most of his leisure hours out walking or cycling with his wife, Brigitte.
Crucially, the media is not personalising his dealings with the unions, as British newspapers and TV stations did in the 80s, when Mrs Thatcher was pitched against miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.
While Macron of course has enemies, there is nothing like the level of hatred being directed at him as Thatcher endured throughout her career.
There will be more chaos and plenty of pain over the next few months – and not just on the railways – but Macron is already reaping the kind of results that far more pugnacious politicians only ever fantasised about.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion.