The problem with blatant ploys is that they always end up getting noticed. The method that underpins President Emmanuel Macron's approach to reforms, which has allowed him to roll out his policies with no real resistance for nearly a year, has now been exposed as a result of the unions' action against planned reforms to the national railway the SNCF. Yes, the government has continued to hold lots of meetings, and tries to insist, as transport minister Élisabeth Borne did in Le Parisien, that “no one can understand why the rail unions are taking part in a long and detrimental strike while we're half way in the consultations and the government is taking part in dialogue”. But the technique is no longer having the same effect.
This is chiefly because the unions themselves have lost any illusions about the method being employed. Having got their fingers burnt last year when the government churned out official decrees to change employment law, and in many other episodes, they can now clearly see what the government's game is. “It's a real farce,” Laurent Brun, the general secretary of CGT Cheminots, the rail section of the CGT trade union, said on Thursday April 5th as he left a meeting at the Ministry of Transport that had gone on for more than six hours. “Every time we try to get preliminary documents with the minister's proposals, so that we can criticise them, amend them, oppose them or approve them,” he continued. “They send us … PowerPoint presentations of the issues, when we know the presentation of the issues and the presentation of the problems off by heart!”
After spending two days being worked on in committee, the government's legislation on the future of France's railways, for a “new railway agreement”, will be discussed at the National Assembly on Monday April 9th. The government may consider it nonsensical for the unions to stage a strike when the consultation is not yet over. But it appears to find it perfectly normal for the country's Parliament to start to examine the text of the proposed legislation under the same circumstances. “It's going very, very fast, yet on our side there's no progress,” Fanny Arav, UNSA's representative on the board of directors at SNCF Réseau – which operates the country's rail network - told Mediapart. “We get the impression that things are being written behind our backs.”
However, the MP for Macron's ruling La République en Marche (LREM) party who is helping to steer the rail reform legislation through the Assembly, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, insists that the timetable is perfectly logical. He says it will be main headings of the reforms that will be discussed in Parliament from Monday April 9th – including the issue of rail workers' special employment status – and on which the government has made it clear many times it will not back down. “There will be some decrees, but only on technical points,” says the MP. “We're going to examine the broad principles of the reform, but the social aspect will be debated within the collective agreement or, on certain points, in the legislation but later.” This approach makes it easier to understand the nature of the dialogue of the deaf that is occurring in the negotiations at the Ministry of Transport, where the discussions are about the outline of a future that the employees' union representatives do not want.
Union leaders have promised to step up the industrial action. They also plan to wrestle back control over “public opinion”, that great unknown factor that everyone fights over and on which Emmanuel Macron has built his political strategy up to now. When prime minister Édouard Philippe was questioned on April 5th about the possibility that public opinion might one day swing in favour of the rail workers he said he did not fear that. “I know that perceptions of social movements can fluctuate,” he told radio station France Inter. “What interests me is not so much commenting on and watching public opinion. I'm not fascinated by indicators. What interests me more is the direction, and what interests me is trying to ensure that we find a solution.”
The prime minister repeated this line later in front of the French Parliament's second chamber, the Senate. “Our objective is not to end such and such a privilege, it's not to set French people against one another, it's to implement the letter and the spirit of the presidential manifesto,” he said during questions to the government. Though he insists he is not interested in “fluctuations” in public opinion, Édouard Philippe nonetheless watches them closely. And he never misses a chance to try and tilt them in his favour. That is why he constantly points out that while “the right to strike has to be respected in the sense that a constitutional freedom must be respected” he also “thinks [about] all those who need the train to go to work, to go and meet their relatives, to move around, to be free to come and go” and who “suffered in particular” on April, 3th and 4th, the days of the first rail strike.
Behind the government's determination not to give in there is also a growing awareness of the difficulties that lie ahead, especially given the success of the first rail strike and the prospect of the second two-day stoppage that started on Sunday April 8th. His office said in the middle of last week that the prime minister had “decided to postpone his trip to Mali to remain in Paris at the weekend”, because of his current workload. The preparations to evacuate the remaining protesters from the site at Notre-Dames-des-Landes in western France - where the government recently abandoned plans for a new airport – were certainly one reason for putting off the trip. But the industrial action was a factor too.
Every government minister, including the prime minister, is expected to rally around and “continue to explain calmly and thoughtfully” the railway reform, while taking care “never to stigmatise anyone”. Those were the instructions given by Emmanuel Macron at the cabinet meeting of ministers last Wednesday April 4th. “This mobilisation [editor's note, industrial action] must not stop the government from moving forward and carrying out the transformations for which we were elected just under a year ago,” the head of state told his ministers, according to the government's spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux.
Despite the anger in the air, Emmanuel Macron remains convinced that the effort to “educate” people will ultimately bear fruit. “The president of the Republic will never stop trying to convince,” said one of his advisors in February, before going on to quote Pierre Mendès France, who was prime minister for eight months from June 1954: “Democracy is about convincing”.
This process of education and persuading the public is made all the harder by the frenetic pace of reforms which leaves little time for anyone to catch breath and reflect. The phenomenon is nothing new: the early days of all presidential terms are packed with legislation. “You always get the maximum number of things passed in the first months,” says one experienced ministerial advisor who worked in a previous presidency. “It's better to do it when the government is strong and there are not yet any elections coming up than when the French can no longer bear the sight of us!”
This fast pace also allows the government to portray an image of always being on the go, one of the mantras of the Macron communications machine. “We urgently need to end the do-nothing approach,” is a phrase often heard from members of the government, with the resulting risk that haste can become confused with speed. With measures on asylum and immigration, military planning, the railways, housing, insurance, unemployment and reform of the country's political institutions going before the cabinet or Parliament this spring, the list of reforms seems endless.
“We mustn't slacken the pace, that's the most important thing,” Julien Denormandie, who is local government minister and very close politically to the president, told Mediapart. “We're convinced that all of these reforms are necessary to transform the country.” However, not everyone in government is quite so convinced about the breakneck speed of measures. “Announcing institutional reform in the same week that people are climbing into trains through the windows wasn't perhaps entirely necessary,” says one ministerial advisor.
The argument that the measures being introduced are simply the implementation of Emmanuel Macron's campaign promises is no longer enough. For what we are now seeing for the first time are the real details of his policies being unveiled. And those details are anything but incidental.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter