Honeymoon is over but the seduction must continue

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics

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Political honeymoons are short, and Emmanuel Macron’s was no exception. An August YouGov poll saw his approval rating slip from 66% at the election to 36%. What should have been his summer holiday was interrupted – a self-inflicted wound – by argument about the role his wife should have as première dame: most French seem to think it lacks true republican spirit for her to have any at all besides being the president’s hostess. How that squares with the feminist ideal remains to be seen.

So M Macron faces the rentrée needing to bolster his standing and to impress upon the French – especially the millions who did not vote for him – that he is fit for purpose. His pose as some sort of heir of Louis XIV, enlisting Versailles as his backdrop, played badly. The French want their president and his office to have dignity and to project France well to the world, but not by aping a long-gone monarchy. M Macron is young – still not 40 – and clearly wants to project a proper sense of status. As even his most inept predecessor would tell him, that is best achieved by avoiding stunts.

Late August saw officials in meetings with representatives of the main trades unions, trying to pave the way to reforms of the labour market to give France’s economy the thorough restructuring it needs. The aim is to bring down unacceptably high levels of unemployment and start to reduce the massive amounts – 57% of GDP compared with around 43% in the UK – the country spends in the public sector. Payroll takes a huge proportion of public spending: the state is overmanned by western standards – even the unlamented François Hollande admitted that, and started to reform it – but it has acted as an employer not least to avoid a political problem caused by lack of opportunities in the private sector.

Regulation designed to encourage the private sector to hire more people – notably the 35-hour week – has had the opposite effect, driving down profitability and restricting the need and necessary resources to expand employment in that sector. But the main reason why so many French cannot find jobs – the latest official, and almost certainly massaged, unemployment figure is 9.5%, or just over 2.7m – is that, once hired, it is almost impossible for them to be sacked, thanks to the weight of regulation on this and other employment conditions in the 3,000 page Code du travail.

Management in France, lacks the right to manage, causing reluctance to hire untried and untested young people – hence youth unemployment of nearly 25%.

When M Macron was finance minister he tackled some of the restrictive practices of the unreconstructed 1980s socialism that M Hollande so warmly embraced: but was heavily criticised for his pains, and some of his limited reforms went through the Assemblée Nationale purely thanks to clause 49:3 of the French constitution, which allows a government to get its way.

With M Macron commanding a majority in the Assemblée, such anti-democratic measures will not be needed for further reforms: but legislative approval is not the problem.

Organised labour, and its spokespeople, retain a disproportionate influence in France of a type not seen in Britain since the 1970s. The Assemblée can pass whatever reforms it likes, but getting the unions to accept them, especially if they include making it easier to dismiss staff, is quite another matter. The CGT has already set a day of protest for September 12.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2008 reforms, designed by the former socialist minister Jacques Attali, collapsed almost immediately because of industrial action, and set the tone of failure for M Sarkozy’s administration.

M Macron will be alert to this precedent, and may have to tread a delicate line between loosening up the labour market as he would wish, to deliver on his promises to help business, and stopping France grinding to a halt.

He has already discovered that it is easier to campaign than to govern. There will be a delay to the tax cuts he promised; the great exodus back to France from the dealing rooms of the City of London is so far imperceptible; his partner, the MoDem leader François Bayrou, has left government in disgrace; various of his parliamentary troops have turned out to be inept. His prime minister, Edouard Philippe, is a sensible technocrat, playing the steadying role that François Fillon performed for M Sarkozy, and many of M Macron’s instincts are entirely right.

But the task of winning over organised labour has barely started, and the public – most of whom did not vote for M Macron or his new party – are disillusioned. Senatorial elections on September 24 will be an interesting barometer of M Macron’s clout, and of whether his fragmented opposition is reviving.

At least as M Macron embarks on reform and deregulation he does so with the support of most of his EU partners, and especially of Angela Merkel, whose patience with M Hollande was quickly exhausted.

M Macron has difficulties with Poland, which objects to the plan he is putting to the EU to limit “posted workers” from Eastern Europe undercutting the local workforce. That is a sop to France’s unions, but also sounds much like one of the main complaints of the victorious Brexiteers.

It is a reminder of the Euroscepticism with which M Macron must also deal when pushing for more eurozone integration and a eurozone budget.

In his domestic economic reforms, especially tackling the Code du travail, he has sense on his side: a mark of his statesmanship will be to see how far he and his colleagues, whom he has ordered into the media to promote his policies, can convince his opponents, and the country.

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