Live from France: Why Emmanuel Macron's Popularity Has Fallen By Nathan Richmond
While the success of France's football team at this year's World Cup in Russia has given President Macron something to enjoy, little else seems to be going right for the French head of state. Indeed, in the midst of a heat wave across Europe, this is Macron's summer of discontent. From an approval rating of about 66 percent upon his spring 2017 election, Macron's public approval rating, a little more than a year into his term, is now hovering at about 40 percent.
Railway and Airline Workers On Strike
While strikes are fairly common in France, especially by railway (SNCF) and airline (Air France) workers, it is unusual for them to strike during the summer. Strikes usually occur in the fall, winter, and spring, and most of the time unions are reluctant to interfere with summer vacations, either their own or others'.
But this year is different. Macron has introduced sweeping reforms to the statutes governing railway workers, who are government employees (functionaires) which will apply to new hirees, but not those previously-hired. The unions are strongly opposed and have introduced a rolling schedule of strikes to reduce service. They cannot legally stop all rail service however, under a law passed in 2007 forcing unions to provide at least minimal service during strikes.
Air France (partially owned by the French government) employees are coordinating their actions with those of the railway unions in sympathy with them. A recent vote against a new contract by employees forced the Air France CEO to resign.
While public opinion favors the government's viewpoint on the necessity of the railway reforms, for now, the unions do not appear to be backing down, especially after voting overwhelmingly to continue striking. 60 percent of SNCF employees (about 90,000 of 150,000) participated in a recent referendum on the government's planned reforms, and 95 percent of those voting disapproved of the reforms.
However, SNCF participation in the strike is steadily falling and is now between 10 and 15 percent of SNCF workers, down from about one third. And the government has no interest in backing down either, arguing that to do so would jeopardize their planned reforms in many other sectors of the government and the economy. Thus, each side is hardening their position and the public increasingly inconvenienced by the impasse.
Universities Under Siege
Spring was a particularly difficult time for French universities. Public universities in France are free, or are nearly free, and are highly competitive. There are very few private universities in France. Chronically underfunded, the government's preferred method of addressing the problems of the public universities is to make university admissions even more selective, effectively reducing opportunities, rather than investing in more infrastructure and hiring more faculty and staff. This has resulted in a violent backlash by university students who occupied, then destroyed, campuses across France forcing postponement their exit exams (and thus jeopardizing their own post-university employment prospects).
Tax Reforms Decried
Pensioners in France have seen their taxes rise, slightly, to help offset a slight reduction in the tax rate of workers. While the tax increase, in the form of a reduction of pension payments has been very modest--something on the order of 20€/month on a pension of 1500€/month for example--opposition politicians have been fanning public resentment portraying the tax increase as the government robbing the elderly poor.
It has been especially effective at rousing widespread resentment when combined with the fact that the government abolished the "wealth tax", a supplemental tax on fortunes, and also the "exit tax", a special tax on the wealthy who "emigrated", for example to Luxembourg, to avoid France's taxes. The suppression of the wealth and exit taxes, combined with the perceived fiscal attack on the elderly poor, has earned for Macron the derisive title of "President of the Rich."
Farmers on Strike
Strikes by agricultural workers are common in France and are usually quite demonstrative and effective. From dumping tons of rotten fruit or dead pigs by the truckload in front of government offices to emptying gallons of wine until the streets run red, to piling manure and placing farm equipment strategically to block access to stores and shopping centers, agricultural workers usually get their way. In June this year agricultural workers were unhappy because of a government decision to allow the French company Total to use imported palm oil to produce biodiesel fuel. Farmers blocked oil refineries for three days causing some petrol stations to run dry. Fearful of the consequences of bringing motorists and trucking to a standstill, the government made some concessions and farmers have, temporarily at least, ended the blockade. A temporary peace has descended on this sector.
And finally, motorists are extremely angry with the government because of a new initiative of Prime Minister Eduard Philippe to reduce the speed limit on France's secondary road network. France has a high number of fatal accidents (3,469 in 2016) often due to excessive speed, and overwhelmingly on the secondary roads. The government introduced a new national speed limit of 80 km/hr (48mph) down from 90 km/hr (56mph) on July 1st in what has been billed as a two-year experiment to see if it will reduce highway fatalities. The number frequently cited by PM Philippe is the expectation of saving 300-400 lives annually.
Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of French are fiercely opposed to the change because 1) commuting time will be lost unnecessarily; 2) more drivers will accumulate enough points for speeding to force them to lose their driving licenses, thus forcing them to either drive illegally or lose their jobs; 3) a recent study in Denmark showed that increasing the speed on a secondary road led to fewer accidents; and, most importantly, 4) it is viewed as a transparent attempt by the government to raise revenue on the backs of motorists.
The view that the speed limit change is a mere ploy to raise revenue is especially salient among the French public because a new method to catch speeders also was recently introduced. Unlike in the US where highway patrols stop motorists and issue speeding citations, one almost never sees the police on the nation's roadways in France. Instead, there are radar boxes equipped with cameras that flash speeding motorists and the offender receives their ticket in the mail about two days later.
Speeding tickets are expensive and offenders are given a window of a few weeks to pay their fine before the fine steeply increases. Tickets also (depending on how much over the speed limit one is traveling) can be accompanied by the loss of points on a French license (12 points accumulated loss leads to suspension of a license), or the immediate suspension of one's license, or, in particularly egregious circumstances, steep fines and/or incarceration.
Road signs remind drivers of the speed limits and they are warned that they are approaching the stationary radar boxes. Many GPS systems will also warn motorists if they are approaching radar boxes and/or if they are speeding. So motorists often slow down for the radar boxes and then speed until the next one. What particularly offends motorists, however, is the newly-introduced use of "private entrepreneurs" who drive the nation's highways in unmarked vehicles helping the government catch and fine speeders, and thus making it more difficult to speed undetected.
Despite the Prime Minister's announcement that fines collected for violating the new 80 km/hr speed limit will be used for a dedicated road safety fund, motorists are angry about "being held back unnecessarily" and the "dangers of motorists who drive too slowly" and unless the number of fatalities on France's secondary roads drops significantly in the next year or two, the government may be forced to give in to the demands of an unhappy public, thus emboldening others who harbor their own grievances against the current administration.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College reporting from France