The education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has a big plan for the start of the new academic year on Monday 4 September; at his suggestion, pupils in secondary and primary schools up and down the country will be greeted with songs and music. The Ministry of Education says it will be a happy, positive and motivating experience for the youngsters who will, it hopes, be joined in the fun by teachers, parents and headteachers alike.
President Emmanuel Macron seems to wants to pre-empt his education minister. For after a weekend when the radical left, greens and Right all held conferences to mark the start of the post-holiday political year, the government has been out in force singing the praises of its own policies.
But the strains of 'Ode to Joy' that accompanied Macron's first steps as newly-elected president at the Louvre in Paris on May 7th have now definitively faded away. After the upbeat tones of Beethoven, now that the Macron mirage rapidly is dissipating the mood music now feels more like that well-known 1930s song 'Je ne suis pas bien portant' ('I'm not feeling too good') by French actor Gaston Ouvrard. Gone are the De Gaulle-like postures, the talk of France “finding its voice again” in the world and the macho handshakes with Donald Trump. In their place are the grind of daily politics, its limitations, its pitfalls, its reforms and budget calculations. In their place, too, are the social realities of a divided country, something highlighted by the mass unemployment figures: in July the jobless total rose by 35,000 and according to the employment agency Pôle Emploi across all social categories there are now six million people without work in France.
The euphoria that gripped the presidency at the beginning has come to an end. President Macron is now faced with three major difficulties: an economic policy that is clearly right-wing; unpopular measures; and a spectacular absence of effective political representatives capable of explaining and getting across what the government is doing.
This explains the president's sudden change of approach. Speaking in Berlin on May 15th Macron sidestepped a journalist's question by saying he had decided he would never speak on domestic politics while he was abroad. Last Wednesday and Thursday, August 23rd and 24th, he did the exact opposite during a visit to Eastern Europe, with the arguments he deployed displaying a certain anxiety on his part.
'France is not a reformable country, French men and women hate reforms...as a people they hate that. They have to be told where we're heading, and they have to be asked to carry out fundamental change,' he said in Bucharest on August 24th. 'France has once more become a society of status,' he said.
The idea that France is stuck in the status quo and the income that comes from status and vested interests is an old refrain which was, for example, used a great deal by current Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé in 1995 when he was prime minister and had to back down in the face of social protests over his planned reforms. It is a classic argument of the Right, which has always explained its difficulties in carrying out 'reforms' – the 'structural reforms' that neo-liberals so crave - by some nebulous irredeemable Gallic characteristic!
Now it is Emmanuel Macron's turn to highlight this point. But he has held back from commenting on, correcting or giving any signs on what now constitutes his main political problem: the fact that his policies and economic decisions are right-wing. These include the virtual abolition of the wealth tax, a reduction in tax on investment income, a reduction in housing benefit, a cut in budgets (of universities, health and defence), a restriction on or end of government-backed job contracts – particularly those aimed at getting young people into work – and the increase in the CSG (a supplementary tax to help fund the social security budget) partially offset by a reduction in workers' social contributions. On top of these budgetary decisions, which help the well-off and hit the least well-off as well as ordinary working people, there are the government decrees that will reform workplace employment law to offer greater “flexibility” - for which read even more insecurity for employees – and a major change in unemployment benefit provision.
Macron's election mantra about being “of the Left and Right” vanished once the government made its first political and economic decisions. This has not just led to warnings from Macron's predecessor President François Hollande, there have also been questions raised inside the president's own political camp. A key ally François Bayrou, leader of the centrist MoDem party, told Le Point of his concerns about the “atmosphere created by the increase in the CSG and, at the same time, some tax breaks for the better-off”. He considered that these policies had “angered a section of pensioners and public servants”. Bayrou, who was briefly justice minister under Macron before having to stand down over a party funding controversy, was overtly critical of the government: “Public opinion can't clearly see the direction, the goal that's been fixed.”
Alain Juppé, who has come out of his retirement from national politics, and whose former right-hand man Édouard Philippe is today the prime minster, says it is now clear that 'Macronism' is nothing more than communications “froth”. Yet the Right in general can be content in the knowledge that some of its own – the prime minster, economy minister Bruno Le Maire and budget minister Gérald Darmanin – are in charge of the new government's economic policy. They can also take pleasure from noting that up to now there has been no gesture, no measure put in place, aimed at the centre-left or socialist voters who elected Emmanuel Macron.