Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Useful Antagonism, Une Guerre Picrocholine

Emmanuel Macron blames Pierre Gattaz, the head of the employers association MEDEF, for what he terms the failure of the pacte de responsabilité. What dizzying speed! The pact is not even a year old, and already it's a failure. Let's recall the terms. Hollande promised to reduce payroll taxes, and in return firms promised to "negotiate" new hires branch by branch. But after a year, negotiations have led to agreements in only 2 of 50 branches and haven't even begun in 23 others.

But the negotiations were always a bit of a sham. A firm that wants to hire will do so; a firm that doesn't see a prospect of increased demand for its product isn't going to commit itself at the negotiating table to hire new workers just because its payroll tax has been reduced. MEDEF wanted a measure to reduce unit labor costs, and it got one; the government famously wanted to "bend the unemployment curve," and it got a bend, but, alas, in an upward direction. The likelihood of such a failure was noted at the pact's inception.

So what's really going on? It's simple. The government has been in trouble with its voter base ever since Manuel Valls announced that he "loved" business and Emmanuel Macron replaced Arnaud Montebourg, who professed not to be such a lover of business while in office but promptly enrolled in a prominent business school upon leaving it and who declares now that is fondest dream in life is to become an entrepreneur (which may make him feel more warmly about the two pro-enterprise Mannies). If the prime minister could be cheered by CEOs for declaring his love, then who was looking out for the workers? If the minister of the economy felt that French competitiveness was lagging because, as he put it, too many French workers were illettrés, it would probably be a mistake to look to him as a champion of the working class.

What the government needed was an enemy. So it chose one: the MEDEF. The lumbering Gattaz responded to provocation with his customary clumsiness, and the deed was done. The Socialists can now say that, while they still love business, business doesn't love them back, or at any rate not enough. A simulacrum of the old left-right conflict has been put in place, but of course nothing in the way of an actual policy change has occurred. It would be too absurd to, say, rescind the payroll tax reduction, which was and remains a sensible measure, even if it has yet to produce results and may never amount to much. There are no arrows left in the quiver. The government's policy has always been "Wait, something will turn up." It still is. And undoubtedly something will turn up. Eventually. In the meantime it's useful to have an enemy again, even if la guerre reste tout à fait picrocholine.