Last weekend was not the most enjoyable weekend I ever had. Flying back from the USA, I was stuck in Madrid having missed my connection due to delay.
Instead of getting home at the planned 11:00 on Saturday, I finally got there at 4:30 am on Sunday morning. And that only through a complex combination of trains, planes and automobiles. If I had taken Iberia’s offering, I would have got in at midnight Monday night.
The proximate cause of all this aggravation was a strike by French air traffic controllers that threw the whole European airspace into chaos. Which brings us to President Macron and the fight he has on his hands.
Macron wants to do a mini-Thatcher with France. Bring the country into the modern world by changing labour relations and getting France to operate more smoothly and more efficiently. It’s going to be hard work.
Thatcher took on all vested interest groups in the UK. Not just the unions, but doctors, the City, and everyone else who operated a closed shop and could hold the government to ransom. But she took them on in series. One battle at a time.
Her biggest engagement with one of the most militant unions – the National Union of Mineworkers – was meticulously planned. Coal reserves were accumulated for a long time to ensure that a prolonged strike would not cripple the country. She made sure that she engaged in battle only when she was sure of winning.
We have not seen any of that from Macron. At least not yet.
He has managed to agree with the unions a deal to revise the complex, 1,000 page French labour manual. He is cautiously chipping away at public expenditure. But, until now, that’s as far as it goes.
Given the culture in France, it’s hard to see either a Thatcher-style revolution or a shift towards the kind of consensus model between capital and labour that we see in Germany and the Netherlands.
Air France workers have just rejected a seven- year pay deal put forward by the CEO. The CEO promptly resigned and there seems to be no clear route towards making Air France in any way competitive. The rail unions have already shown their teeth and students have been out on the streets in force to oppose Macron’s education reforms.
Charisma and vision can only get a leader so far. At the end of the day, one has to get ones hands dirty and engage – in the street fight if necessary. We shall see whether Macron can pull that off.
In spite of his presidency and a majority in parliament, he is not politically strong. The far right and the far left are still nipping at his heels – after all, they only missed edging him out of the second round in the presidential election by a whisker.
His popularity in France is sinking. His love-in with President Trump, worthwhile though it was, did not save the Iran deal.
Mr Macron has a long climb ahead of him to reform France. Given that, one has to question whether he should be allowing himself to be distracted by also trying to push wholesale European reform and by trying to get his party to partner with others to produce a single pan-European ticket in next year’s elections to the European parliament.
One maxim for victory that every general knows is not to try to fight on too many fronts simultaneously.
Oh! And one more thing. Jeremy Corbyn should think long and hard about the appeal to the British people of a political programme that takes Britain back to that which is still prevalent in France.
Or, worse, to the pre-Thatcher era in Britain. He is right that the distribution of wealth and income between capital and labour has become far too skewed towards the former. And that is damaging the economy and will continue to do so. The Tories have shown no ability or desire to tackle this issue thereby opening an opportunity for Labour. But the solution does not lie in a back to the future strategy.
Labour must do the hard work of coming up with novel, radical proposals fit for the 21st century. There are plenty of ideas around that could be developed.
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