France’s renegade economy minister angers the left – again
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French economy minister Emmanuel Macron took aim at the 35-hour working week again on Thursday. The comments, set to further alienate those on the left of the ruling Socialist Party, are nothing unusual for a politician who has rarely fit the mould.
“A long time ago, the left believed ... that France would be better off if people worked less. That was a wrong idea,” Macron said at an annual gathering of French business leaders, echoing similar comments he made almost exactly a year ago.
Macron’s remarks were seen as a thinly veiled criticism of France’s law limiting many employees to a maximum 35 hours of work a week, introduced under the government of former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in 2000 and a cornerstone of leftist policy ever since.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, was forced to put a damper on the potential fallout from Macron’s latest step outside party lines by insisting an end to the 35-hour week was not on the cards.
Across the political divide, Gérald Darmanin, a deputy with the conservative Les Republicains party, sought to raise mischief by offering Macron “political asylum”. Darmanin, who is taking up a posting as mayor of Tourcoing, said he would offer his vacant seat in the National Assembly to Macron.
Macron “has understood the country’s problem and wants to liberalise the economy. One can only agree with that”, he told French TV channel iTELE.
Blasted by the left, championed on the right; it is an unusual place for a socialist politician to find himself.
But then Macron has always been something of a misfit within his party.
Young, at just 36 at the time of his appointment last year, and a former investment banker for a company owned by the Rothschild family, he was never a conventional choice to spearhead President François Hollande’s economic policy, particularly as the French President had previously declared “the world of finance is my enemy”.
After taking up the post, Macron immediately went about invoking the ire of the Socialist’s left wing with his denouncement of the 35-hour week and by then calling the French economy “sick” and in need of deregulation.
The most emblematic facet of his war on French working culture however, is the package of pro-business reforms that bear his name. The so-called “Macron law” includes allowing shops to open on Sundays and late evenings, as well as making it easier for businesses to lay-off employees.
To those who have been crying out for years for a more business friendly, reformist approach to France’s economic woes, Macron’s proclamations have been music to their ears.
But for some of his Socialist colleagues, his views are outright blasphemy and have provoked the ire of the party’s left wing, many of whom already feel that Hollande’s administration has veered to far to the right.
On Friday, Socialist deputy Yann Galut accused Macron of “disowning all the values of the left” – a fairly typical criticism levelled at the economy minister by the party’s left.
Nevertheless, Hollande and the party elite are, it seems, willing to tolerate the potential alienation of some its members for the benefits Macron brings – as evidenced by the forcing through of the “Macron law” without a parliamentary vote.
For a party flagging in the polls, all too often accused both historically and in modern times of being anti-business and anti-wealth, Macron and his policies are an important weapon in their arsenal – an example they can point to when such arguments are made against them and a way to balance out a what is still on the whole a fairly traditionally socialist platform.
Meanwhile, Macron's cross-party appeal means that dropping him would be an expensive loss to the Socialist Party.
Polls have shown that the vast majority of the French public is in favour of relaxing the 35-hour week law, while Macron has strong approval ratings from both Socialist and Les Republicains voters.
The challenge for Hollande though is reaping the benefits of Macron’s popularity while keeping the party together.
That was clearly on the mind of the Socialist Party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis as he made an appeal for unity Friday.
“If each time someone takes a position in opposition to his own party or government we overreact, we participate in our fragmentation,” he said.