Delivered by experts from Cardiff University’s School of Modern Languages, the World Talk Lecture Series is a new series of talks on topics of current interest in various countries around the world.
Dr Nick Parsons – Biography
Nick Parsons completed his PhD, comparing French and British industrial relations, at the London School of Economics. After teaching positions in several French and British universities, he joined the French Department in the University of Cardiff in 1991. He is now Reader in French and teaches courses on translation, French politics and the French labour movement. His research interests focus on French and European politics, industrial relations and social policy. He has published many book chapters and journal articles on these issues and is the author of French Industrial Relations in the New World Economy among other titles.
In May 2017, Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential elections with a large majority over his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, and his La République en Marche party followed this by securing a large majority in the French parliament. At the time, he was hailed as the saviour of France, and potentially of a Europe confronted with right-wing populism. Just a few months later, however, his popularity has dwindled and he is facing street protests. How can this be explained and what does it mean for his project to reform France and Europe?
Dr Nick Parsons began his talk with an introduction to French President Emmanuel Macron. He said that he just didn’t know what was going to happen to him. Academics find it difficult to predict the future. He cannot understand why the change in French Labour laws has not led to greater strike action as of yet. Macron has a sort of self-projection – He likens himself to some kind of God. Hence the title of the lecture.
It is strange to see why somebody who came to power on a wave of adulation should find himself so low in opinion polls. Macron is only 39 years old and entered the Presidential race late on and managed to secure a landslide victory in Parliament.
Macron’s victory in 2017 saw him defeat Marine Le Pen in the second round of Presidential elections, winning 66% of the vote. In Parliamentary elections his Party – La République En Marche (LREM) gained an absolute majority in the National Assembly with 308 of the 577 seats. It was a stunning achievement for a party only a year old and can be seen as the defeat of right-wing populism.
The victory made Macron the subject of international headlines with many decrying him as ‘l’homme providentiel’ – There is a trend in history of turning to saviours at a time of crisis. Eg. Napoleon, De Gaulle.
France can be seen as in decline, threatened by globalisation. Macron was portrayed as the saviour from above – the ‘Jupiter’ the supreme God of Roman mythology.
But – he is a God with the feet of clay as there has been a rapid decline in the opinion polls. There is high unemployment in France matched by a fear of globalisation. François Hollande was perceived as a ‘Monsieur Normale’ but in Macron we have a President who, despite his Godlike status, is the president with the biggest decline in approval ratings in history.
Most new presidents have a period of grace of 100 days before their approval rating might start to wane. For Macron, within 30 days he had managed to alienate the vast majority of the French population.
Why has this happened?
The Presidential vote was as much an anti-Le Pen vote as a pro-Macron vote. Macron benefitted from division on the left and financial scandal on the right. In the vote there were high abstention rates (figures including spoilt papers). 24% abstained in 1st and 2nd round of Presidential election. 52.4% in 1st round of Parliamentary election and 61.6% in the 2nd round of Parliamentary election.
Macron has no strong mandate or support.
The early Macron reforms seem to be more favourable towards the wealthy. There have been housing benefit cuts. The Housing tax reform has been staggered and deferred. There have been cuts to state-subsidised employment (contrats aides). There are cuts to local authority finance and also a reform of Wealth Tax – limited to property. The reform of Labour Law by decree has brought opposition out onto the streets. In addition to this there is widespread discontent in the public sector.
There have been cuts to state-subsidised employment, reducing numbers from 460 000 to 310 000. Local councils are up in arms about the changes affecting them.
Macron’s tax and spend policies have been very pro-wealthy. He has tried to decentralise and introduce collective bargaining to weaken the trade union movement. For Macron he hasn’t gone far enough and wants to go even further.
1 in 5 jobs in France is in the public sector and Macron wants to reduce these jobs by 120000. He will do this primarily by the non-replacement of retirees rather than using forced redundancies. There will also be pay freezes in the public sector. Demonstrations against this were arranged for October 10th.
To put the situation into perspective: Macron is facing problems but they are not insurmountable. The street protests thus far have not been disastrous. (an estimated 400 000 protesters across France)
Public sector strike action and opposition to the Labour Laws will be difficult to sustain. Macron has support for these Labour Law reforms and can claim political legitimacy for them.
The opposition is weak and divided, especially in Parliament. Macron has a very good track record for getting things done. The start of the mandate is a good time to do unpopular things. Much will depend on whether these reforms will bring success on the unemployment front.
The trade unions cannot agree and are divided. There has been no unified call for action. Also, the political left is divided. They could have challenged Macron properly by fielding a single candidate but Melanchon insisted on standing and gained only a pitiful 17 seats in Parliament.
On the political right there is a contest for leadership and on the whole the Front Nationale is in disarray with the bloodletting. The FN represents a party that is against globalization and the EU. It is a party for national identity and in general campaigns against immigration.
Macron has performed an incredible feat by creating his party from scratch and steering it to win elections so comfortably. He has energy and is a strong leader. The Party apparatus, however, is very personal and is fully dependent upon him as a leader. It is highly personal, a personality cult if you like.
In comparison with Margaret Thatcher, she was usually very unpopular at the start of her political mandate and would change her polling in the build-up towards elections.
Macron is bound by European fiscal policy and is aiming to abide by fiscal rules and to ensure all his cuts have an effect by 2020.
In a sense his project is a gamble as he is attempting to do what no other President before him has managed to do. In reducing unemployment it is a hard task. His aim is to reduce the current figure of 9.5% to 7.5%
After François Hollande failed to reduce the chômage figures, he didn’t stand for re-election.
The whole proof will come towards the end of his term as President. Will Macron’s Jupiter truly prove to be the ‘Seat of Grace’?