Convincing his European partners, above all Germany, that France will embrace structural reforms in order to get a new deal for Europe with more public investment, the introduction of Eurobonds and a strengthening of the common budget: this is the strategy Macron has been putting forward since the first day of his presidency.
He has been trying to sell a new brand of neoliberalism combining fiscal consolidation and growth based on the premise that, yes, it is possible to meet employers' concerns for more flexibility and employees’ expectations for more purchase power at the same time. But what's left of it when a solid opposition to his decrees reforming the labour market is on the rise and that no one in Europe seems to take up his timid proposal to change the course of the EU? Not much, or rather the same old austeritarian politics.
Macron’s decrees on labour are a serious blow to workers’ protections and introduce an unprecedented era of legal instability. Never before have trade unions endured such a violent attack, as they will lose considerable power in the soon-to-be reformed employee representative body and that agreements can be negotiated without them in companies employing fewer than 50 workers. Redundancies will be made dramatically easier through a large number of measures while at the same time, the generalisation of precariousness will increase with the introduction of mission-based contracts and the undermining of most of the benefits which hitherto went along fixed-term contract – all this to lift the alleged “fear of hiring” preventing employers to create jobs, regardless of the fact that the efficiency of such policies are being negated by a growing number of economists. Social dialogue as we know it will be ancient history, the decrees fostering as much as possible agreements at the company level: such agreements will prevail over contracts regulated by the national set of labour laws (code du travail).
The list of changes is long, and can therefore not be fully addressed here. But its content is not the only reason that drove thousands to take to the street across the country on the 12th of September. The way it is being implemented, namely through the form of decrees, has also added fuel to the fire. The Parliament has been cornered into merely playing a symbolic role, which for a reform of this scope shows nothing but contempt for democracy and a commitment to the most authoritarian elements of the French presidential regime. Pretty ironic for a president who ran his campaign claiming that he would reboot democracy… On the eve of the national day of action, when referring to his decrees and the mobilisation against their implementation, President Macron stated that he “will show an uncompromising determination” and that he “will not give in: not the lazy (sic), not the cynics, not to the extremes.” Unfortunately for him, 400 000 thousands of “lazy” people responded positively to the call launched by the left-leaning trade unions (CGT, SUD-Solidaires and FSU) and took to the streets throughout the country. Contrary to last year’s trade union movement against the so-called Labour Law, the leadership of the two leading moderate trade unions (CFDT and FO) declined the call for mobilisation.
This division did not prevent the first day of mobilisation against the decrees on labour to be a success. Today, the 21st of September, is a new day of strike and demonstrations. France Insoumise called for a “march against the social coup” on Saturday the 23rd in Paris, in which the French Communist Party’s direction did not yet choose whether to participate or not. Divisions – both within the labour movement and the political Left – are high. But so are the stakes. The public opinion is not willing to give Macron a blank check to dismantle the labour and social rights. Let us hope that the multiplication of initiatives opposing the decrees will strengthen, not fragment, the opposition – and that the above-mentioned forces will at least come together on the streets eventually.
The structural reforms of the labour market, with a focus given to the decentralisation of the collective bargaining toward the company level, is at the heart of Macron’s strategy to gain credibility vis-à-vis the European partners and, more especially, the German government. Then, and only then, serious discussions over a (certain amount of) “re-foundation of Europe” can be triggered, so the narrative goes. By “re-foundation”, Macron means in reality something much more humble. In a nutshell: the setting-up of a very modest common budget (1% of Eurozone GDP) and of a EU finance minister, the introduction of Eurobonds tied up the usual political conditionality of implementing further structural reforms and the continuation of the so-called Juncker Plan’s rationale to tackle EU’s lack of investment. Nothing revolutionary indeed…
But even this very little proposal for changing the course of the EU is being welcomed with a polite refusal from the German government. Chancellor Merkel did not have the heart to directly stonewall his proposals. Instead, she let her very orthodox finance minister Schäuble do the job. If the German government does not seem to have a problem with the possibility of having a EU finance minister, it is only because it would help crowning their project of transforming the European stability mechanism into a proper European monetary fund, whose task would be to foster investment in Europe according to even harsher conditionalities defined by the Eurogroup – where Germany plays a predominant role, to say the least. Even Merkel’s most serious, yet inoffensive, opponent in the forthcoming general elections, the social-democrat Martin Schultz, publicly opposed Eurobonds…
One could have thought that Macron could have counted on the support of Jean-Claude Juncker. But the European Commission’s president made very clear last week during his state-of-the-union speech that his priorities for the EU were different: rather than for a EU finance minister, he advocated for a strong EU presidency through the fusion of that of the European Commission with that of the Eurogroup; instead of a common budget for the Eurozone, he fostered the introduction of a tool to make sure that all the EU member states adopt the euro as currency.
In only several months, Macron managed to nearly burn his political capital to the ground. His strategy of balanced neoliberalism (structural reforms in exchange of a pro-growth policy) is on the verge of collapsing. The only question that remains open is the pace of the collapse, and this will be determined by the scope of the movement – as well as by the capacity of the progressive political and social forces composing it to come together.