This time last year president Emmanual Macron was riding high. By July the ride was over. After a hellish few months, there are doubts that he will be now be able to push through his proposed reforms for 2019.
Macron’s big thing was his determination not to back down in the face of opposition – until he did.
His decision to find 10 billion euros to try to placate the Yellow Vests might not have neutered them and could well embolden other sections of the population who oppose reforms planned for this year.
Will he tackle pensions first?
Among the most tricky for the government is pension reform – a key plank of Macron’s presidential platform. The guiding idea is to end the division between the private sector and the public sector so that a euro earned in either is worth the same in pension terms. The legal retirement age of 62 will not be changed.
There could be a tough fight with France’s trade unions who are embarrassed at being sidelined by the grassroots Yellow Vest movement and are keen to be seen to matter. The government faces a battle.
Reforming France’s famous public services is not an easy job ..
The parliamentary timetable also includes a vote on reform of public services. Anything could happen.
Surveys showed there was considerable sympathy in France for some of the Yellow Vests concerns. Most of them had low paid jobs and said they felt crushed under the weight of endless taxes – but they also complained at the lack of public services where they lived.
In his speech at the height of the crisis, Macron reminded the French that taxes pay for public services. But he is also now acutely aware that he must trim fat wherever possible in the public sector as the government is reaching the limit of what taxpayers are willing to pay.
Again the goverment will have a fight on its hands as trade unions resist attempts to employ more contract workers or to introduce the idea of merit-related pay in the public sector. The Unions have declared January 15th a day of protest and hospital and retirement home workers are also making noises.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page for “angry teachers” (called the Red Pens!) is gaining momentum. Macron hopes to set the tone by announcing cuts in the senior echelons of the public services – but he will have huge difficulty meeting his target of 120,000 job cuts in the wider public sector by 2022.
Unemployment benefit too costly?
Again this is risky, in a volatile social climate. The government has made clear that if employers and trade unions can’t reach some sort of deal, it will step in. Labour Minister Muriel Pénichaud says her aim is to reduce job instability and to encourage the unemployed to find jobs. Trade Unions fear the erosion of unemployed people’s rights while employers expect restrictions on their use of short term contracts.
Assisted reproduction for gay and single women
François Hollande was clearly taken by surprise at the strength of opposition to his move to introduce same sex marriage in 2012.
After nearly a year of huge protest marches the law was passed in 2013. Macron was an advisor to the Elysées at the time and has criticised the political handling of the national debate.
He is hugely aware of the strength of opposition to any further challenges to the idea of the traditional family, amongst a highly-motivated and well-organised section of the population. And he intends to tread very carefully. After some delay, legislation will not be examined anytime before the European elections at the end of May. Amid an angry climate at the height of the Yellow Vest crisis, key social conservatives suggested that now is not the time to create further division among the French.
Separation of state and religion?
Always a highly sensitive issue – any alterations to the 1905 law on this subject invite intense scrutiny. Under the law the state is not allow to fund any religious activities in France.
A document leaked last autumn suggests that the government hopes to persuade associations running some mosques and prayer halls to have the buildings they use re-classified as religious rather than cultural.
This would place them in a category which ensures greater financial transparency. The attraction for the places of worship is that under proposed new rules such a classification would include the right to invest in property. Such a change in the law has long been a demand of the French Federation of Protestants, who are very likely to back it.
Constitutional reforms reformed
Macron has a big majority in parliament and was confident of getting his consititutional reforms through but the debate was postponed when the Benallagate affair erupted in July last year.
Now in line with angry demands from the Yellow Vests, the government feels bound to change its earlier plans and include in any new constitutional reforms, mechanisms for more consultative democracy.
Already, following the Yellow Vest protest a huge “national debate” is to be launched in mid January. The plan is that ordinary people write down their concerns and grievances in books in their local town halls and council offices, to be discussed at public meetings up and down the country.
Macron also wants to reduce the number of Senators in the French upper house of parliament by 30% and introduce a dose of proportional representation in parliamentary elections.
Make or Break?
Macron struck a contrite note at times when he addressed the nation on December 10th after several weekends of rioting and violence around the country.
He recognised that he had sometimes caused hurt by previous remarks.
But for the traditional French presidential New Year’s Eve message, he appeared to have recovered some of his determination.
Now in a year when his party is expected to do badly in elections to the European Parliament, with the Benalla affair back in the news and amid a social climate which remains extremely volatile, Macron will need a lot more than a determination to succeed.