Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It's No Longer 1995

When Emmanuel Macron announced that labor code reform would be his first priority, I worried. Mightn't this trigger a strong union reaction, as when Chirac and Juppé tried to reform state pensions in 1995, shutting down public transport, sowing chaos, and eventually forcing a strategic retreat? Well, today is the day of the CGT's general strike, and it's clear that this is not 1995. I happen to be in Paris for a brief visit, so I can report firsthand that the subways are running as usual. There is some disruption of the RER and SNCF, but nothing major. The demos are as colorful as ever, but smaller, and the union united front is no more.

In fact, what has happened reinforces rather than undermines Macron's  strategy. He aims to win a series of small victories, timed to follow one another rather closely, in order to create the impression of steady movement. But because each step is small, the opposition remains small--small but visible and vocal, which suits him nicely because the existence of opposition tends to accredit the idea that he is making big changes--"heroic" changes, as he put it in his marathon interview with Le Point, which hit the streets just as the labor reform was announced (France, he says, needs more heroes).

The interview is a rather odd mix of the heady and the petty, or perhaps more accurately, the lyric and the technocratic, much like Macron himself. To wit: "Ce n'est que le début du combat. Nous sommes un pays ... de calcaire, de schiste et d'argile, de catholiques et de protestants, de juifs et de musulmans." On the one hand. On the other, or, rather en même temps, as the president likes to say, ou presque: "Nous supprimons 3.15 points de cotisations sur les salaires pour les transférer sur la CSG."

This split consciousness leads to some rather dubious formulas, such as "Pourquoi les jeunes de banlieue partent-ils en Syrie? Parce que les vidéos de propagande ... ont transformé à leurs yeux les terroristes en héros. ... Le défi de la politique, aujourd'hui, c'est donc aussi de réinvestir un imaginaire de conquête."

By shaving 3.15 points off the CSG? I'm not sure this will impress the banlieusards in search of heroes. But the lad seems to enjoy what he's doing--or at least he enjoys describing what he purports to be doing. As a friend remarked to me last night, "It's not clear whether we have elected a providential man or a providential child." Peu importe. For the moment his luck has held. If he gets through the Mélenchon menace on Sept 23 (preceded by yet another CGT-organized (non-)general strike (the CGT having decided it wants nothing to do with Mélenchon, nor does it want to see him become the leader of the opposition), Macron may have something to celebrate by Christmas.


bernard said...

Perhaps the main difference with 1995, and this reinforces your point, is that Chirac had run on a sort of "on a raison de se révolter" vintage Sartre platform (I called it at the time a maoist style campaign), supported by a number of intellectuals, some of which would later enjoy a companionship with the remains of the communist party. And then, once elected, Chirac-Juppé had turned around 180 degrees with this late 1995 attempt at reform of the Regimes Spéciaux etc. Not so with Macron. The reforms he is now putting in place are precisely those he announced during his campaign. It is only the timing of the precise bits and pieces which changes a bit as the government wants to cut the projected deficit for 2017. It appears however that the major planks of his reforms will be in by 2019. This means that people are not fundamentally surprised Today as they were in 1995 and that, deep down, even those who demonstrated yesterday know that Macron did get a mandate. They may regret that but they know they can't really stop it.

Alexandra Marshall said...

The CGT won't speak to Mélenchon, and/or vice versa? It starts to feel like the People's Front of Judea vs the Judean People's Front. I'm fine if they want to split the opposition, though wish there were a non-clownish left to challenge some of Macron's propositions. (Why do we need to cap penalties for unjust firing if we concede the firing is unjust? I always assumed that was a point written to be sacrificed in negotiations. It's terrible logic and a terrible incentive to fire with relative impunity.)

bert said...

France has unusually low rates of union membership, and I was wondering if that might be part of the explanation. Looking at the numbers though I see it was the same in '95.

Around 7% of the workforce now, around 8% back then.

(Only Turkey and Estonia today have lower numbers than France, the figure for both falling from over 30% in '95; numbers from OECD)

Alexandra Marshall said...

But Bert, doesn't the (now threatened) right to branch accords that the unions have today in France mean they don't even need high membership? If you know the CGT or FO or whoever is sanctioned (required?) to come to the table on behalf of your industry, what's the incentive to join?

bert said...

Sure. If there's a difference between '95 and now, you won't find it in the membership rolls is all. Art describes how the willingness to disrupt has lessened. It's reasonable to ascribe this to a more broadly-based reduction in the willingness to accept disruption. Beyond opinion surveys I don't know how you'd measure this, but it's evident in the political calculations being made by the various union leaderships. Maybe it's as simple as there being a mandate, or a commonly agreed sense of a mandate, and there's no need to overcomplicate beyond that.
Other factors - overdue exasperation with persistently high unemployment, resentments at the emergence of a two-tier labour market - contributed to creating that mandate, and arguably are feeding into the mix. They remind me of the EU debate on the democratic deficit: you can have input legitimacy (”I represent X”) or output legitimacy (”I deliver Y”). If you have neither, you have a problem.

Alexandra Marshall said...

I haven't been following this as closely as I might once have--being American most of my bandwidth has already been spoken for since November--but is FO's decision to protest in October due simply to Macron's blunderous gaffes? Has anything substantively changed other than mood? I agree, this seems to be a seriously limp opposition right now, but if Macron starts to look really bad I wonder if this changes.

bert said...

I'm with you Alexandra. I made a conscious decision to maintain karmic neutrality in the great What Happened war of 2017, but even so US politics is a bandwidth swamper. And round here that's just garnish on the shit sandwich of Brexit.
Dana Milbank wrote a column saying it's all making him ill.

My Anglo-Saxon explanation: divergent positions are explained by the need for marginal product differentiation between competing offerings. But that's me being flippant in an attempt to conceal my almost complete lack of useful insight, the deep inner workings of the French labour movement being its own complex and demanding discipline.

Alexandra Marshall said...

There is a point where one just stands back and shudders. I haven't slept well since last summer.