AS HIS country returns to work after its two-month summer break, President Macron has delivered a grim message about what is in store for France and by extension for its EU allies: the fat years are over.
An accumulation of crises signals a future of which the disruptive Covid lockdowns were only a foretaste.
The conjunction of scarce energy, inflation, climate change commitments and the consequences of opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine presages a period of economic and political turbulence that marks the end of what Macron called ‘insouciance’, by which he meant taking peace and prosperity for granted.
None of these issues is particular to France in a European or UK context. But Macron, re-elected president without a parliamentary majority to support his agenda, knows from his experience of the gilets jaunes riots how rapidly the country is capable of turning on its rulers.
With this in mind, his remarks to the first post-holiday meeting of his ministerial cabinet were broadcast live so that the public could share his account of the difficulties ahead and hear his plea for national solidarity and for sacrifice from a fickle nation which is divided against him in the National Assembly.
What stuck in everyone’s mind is that he considers ‘abundance’ to be a thing of the past.
‘The moment can seem to be structured by a series of crises all equally serious,’ Macron said. ‘We are living through a great turning point and upheaval. We have been living through, not just this summer but during recent years, the end of abundance, that of easy liquidity, that of the abundance of products of technology which seemed to be perpetually available. What we lived through during Covid has come back more forcefully with supply chain ruptures, the scarcity of technological essentials, and even of water.’
Openly tying the heatwaves and the forest fires which accompanied them to global warming rather than to a weather phenomenon, Macron added: ‘The climate crisis and all its consequences are there and are perceptible.’ (Most forest fires are lit deliberately and they happen every summer.)
The president promised also that his minority government would go ahead with controversial reforms which include, although he didn’t mention it, plans to raise the pension age to 64, a perennial third rail in French politics.
His words stood in stark contrast with his message to the nation last December that he was ‘resolutely optimistic’ about 2022.
Macron finished his unusual intervention with a plea to the entire country to muck in to get through the winter – when the provision of uninterrupted electricity is likely to be uncertain – which the Left quickly laughed off.
Opposition leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron’s demand for sacrifice was offensive to ordinary French people: ‘For [Macron’s] friends, abundance will continue. He doesn’t want to tax the profiteers of the crisis, people who have piled up millions upon millions on the back of the Covid crisis and inflation. For them abundance will continue.’
In France, the month of September is called la rentrée after the long summer hiatus when economic and political activity wind down nationally. With everybody’s batteries recharged, la rentrée symbolises a fresh start as much as a new year.
Critics such as Melanchon accused Macron of trying to get ahead of the trade union unrest expected in the autumn. Telling people that their living standards are going to fall for the foreseeable future creates a delicate problem to manage politically.
In 2018, a small rise in fuel tax erupted in the grassroots gilets jaunes movement which spread across the entire country and involved riots in Paris so close to the Elysée Palace that the government considered evacuating Macron from his official residence. The worst violence quickly died down but the movement lasted until the 2020 Covid lockdown, and its supporters’ demands evolved to include improved living standards.
The president appears to have gambled that being candid with the country about its future as the crisis inevitably worsens constitutes his best chance of staying on top of it although his favourability rating has already fallen to 37 per cent.
François Bayrou, one of his main political allies, drove the point home with a warning that France was heading into its worst crisis since the war unless there is an ‘immense national effort’ of solidarity.
Taking the initiative gives the centrist former socialist Macron the opportunity to appear bold and disguise his political weakness after the stunning success of Left-wing parties which denied him a parliamentary majority after his own re-election in April. He is 39 seats short of a majority and relies on the Gaullist Les Republicans to pass legislation on an ad hoc basis.
When former president Jacques Chirac was confronted with trade union and public opposition to reforms in 1997, he called early elections – essentially a vote of confidence – despite holding a parliamentary majority.
He lost and spent the rest of his presidency in a co-habitation with the socialists. Fresh elections have been suggested as a way out of Macron’s impasse but with the French in their current mood, they would probably be a risk too far.