President and PM now have to convince French nation

As we enter what the Elysée Palace is calling the “second act” of the Macron presidency, some attempt is being made to continue reforms in France that would enable it to compete better against its main rivals.

26 June 2019
By Simon Heffer

The administration plans to make it harder for people to claim unemployment benefit, and will cut help for those who were on higher incomes before they lost their jobs.

Also, to cut the French economy’s reliance on employees on short-term contracts, the government intends to make it less attractive for firms to make such arrangements.

The reforms are forecast to save €3.4bn by 2021, though Mr Macron’s Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, says the purpose is not to save money, but to reduce unemployment.

Mr Macron caused controversy last year by telling a jobless man that if he were to cross the street he might find work.

These are ideological messages, and ideas whose time should have come in France long ago.

The ideology they express – promoting the responsibility of the individual and diminishing the role of the state – comes from the right, and smells of a brand of politics that Jacques Chirac shunned and Nicolas Sarkozy, in his deregulatory moods, could only have dreamt of encouraging French voters to embrace.

Following the European elections the centre-right in France joined the centre-left on the margins of politics; it was the end of Laurent Wauquiez, leader of Les Républicains, and no-one in that movement – whose antecedents ruled France from 1995 to 2012 – seems yet to have a clue of how to re-boot themselves.

For the moment the party retains a strong presence in the Senate, with 98 of the 577 seats in the Assemblée Nationale; but if the European elections are any guide they will struggle in future contests, especially without a charismatic and successful leader.

Mr Macron has been shrewd to have Mr Philippe as his prime minister, because the latter’s instincts are to pursue a right-of-centre course.

Not all Mr Macron’s recruits to his new party before the 2017 election were former leftists such as himself: Mr Philippe had spent nearly seven years as mayor of Le Havre and was a member of the UMP, the party from which Les Républicains evolved.

He had joined the UMP at its foundation in 2002 under the influence of Alain Juppé, in whose cabinet he served after leaving the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

Mr Philippe had made a journey to get that far: coming from a working-class family in Rouen he was a left-wing activist before throwing in his lot with Mr Juppé.

When Mr Juppé briefly served in the Sarkozy administration, Mr Philippe went with him.

He was on Mr Juppé’s campaign team for Les Républicains presidential nomination in 2016, then transferred his affiliation to François Fillon when his candidate was eliminated.

When Mr Fillon became embroiled in his financial scandal, it seemed Mr Philippe’s political ambition would have to be contained, for the moment, within the mairie at Le Havre – but then Mr Macron made him his Prime Minister, as a gesture of unifying left and right within the new movement.

And for two years, keeping out of the limelight and maintaining a clear head, Mr Philippe has done a remarkable impersonation of M Fillon, one of his predecessors as Prime Minister, who kept a steady hand on the tiller during the roller-coaster Sarkozy years.

If anything, the former mayor of Le Havre has moved to the right, politically, in two years in his post.

He was advertised as a “moderate” member of the right, but he has helped lead the departure from the Chiraquien orthodoxy that was part of France’s post-war consensus dating from the brief rule of General de Gaulle in 1944-46 that strove to unite France after occupation had riven it in two.

Many of France’s current problems – such as its 8.7% unemployment rate and the weakness of many of its banks – stem from structural problems in the French economy that have failed to address its redistributive basis that was a crucial part of maintaining the social order immediately after the war.

It is ironic that it has taken a government controlled by two former socialists to try to start to bring home to the French people that the conditions of France in the immediate post-war period no longer exist.

France has been a country living far beyond its means, but a vocal minority of people have refused to accept that is the case – or that the country will be able to hold its own internationally only if it pays people to work rather than not to work.

The response by France’s unions to the Macron/Philippe reforms so far has been to protest that they are an attack on working people.

It will be a measure of the success of the rest of Mr Macron’s term to see how far such protests are marginalised, and how far he carries mainstream French opinion behind him.

For the moment, he seems to have seen off the gilets jaunes – the protest movement whose roots were in rural France’s annoyance at the rise in fuel prices as part of Mr Macron’s environmental strategy, but which then appeared to be hijacked by extremists and anarchists.

Their most recent protest in Paris was of around 200 soi disant mutilés, injured by police during the riots.

One suspects, however, that they will looking for an excuse to come back, just as one suspects the reform of unemployment benefit will not be the last attempt to help France develop a more enterprising workforce.

If the Macron/Philippe reform programme does not move carefully, bringing most of the French public with it by reasoned argument and persuasion, it may not be only his presidency that has a second act.

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Get news, views and information from France
You have 2 free subscriber articles left
Subscribe now to read unlimited articles and exclusive content
Already a subscriber? Log in now