OPINION: Macronsplaining marathon won’t unify France, but may have swung a Euro election win

Macron's plan for Act Two of his presidency needed to unify France, pacify the Gilets Jaunes and boost his European election campaign. John Lichfield examines how he got on with that tall order.

OPINION: Macronsplaining marathon won't unify France, but may have swung a Euro election win
Macron spoke to 150 minutes during the press conference. Photo: AFP

In a 150 minute, Macronsplaining marathon, the President promised to “rebuild the art of being French”.

The art of being French, whatever it may be, does not extend to national unity.

Togetherness-in-grief after the Notre Dame fire endured for two days. Emmanuel Macron’s plan for a more “human” Act Two of his presidency was instantly and predictably torn apart by Gilets Jaunes leaders.


Macron's proposals are unlikely to appease the hard core of the Gilets Jaunes. Photo: AFP

The proposals, intended to answer the Yellow Vest rebellion and relaunch his presidency, were also rejected by opposition politicians as “vague…insufficient…merely crumbs.” A spot poll for Le Figaro found that 63 per cent of those questioned thought that Macron’s performance during a two and half hour press conference at the Elysée Palace was “unconvincing”.

A complete failure then? Not necessarily.

President Macron was never likely to abandon the state-shrinking programme on which he was elected in 2017. Important parts of it, such as reform of the country’s byzantine labour laws, have already been enacted.

He went further than many people had expected in responding to the Gilets Jaunes and to the ideas and grievances which emerged during the Great National Debate that he launched in January.

Substantial income tax cuts for middling earners next year; a minimum €1,000 a month pension (which British OAPs could only dream of); better grouped and organised public services in rural areas; a dose of proportional representation in parliamentary elections; an advisory body on action against climate change composed of 250 people chosen at random; more help for abandoned mothers and children; school classes for five to eight-year-olds limited to 24 places; a lower bar and simpler rules for demanding referenda.

He also added a couple of shameless appeals to voters on the centre right before the European elections on May 26th: a tougher approach to illegal migration and a promise to defend the secular French state against “political Islam”.

The press conference replaced a TV address that Macron was supposed to make on the night of the Notre Dame fire. Many of the proposals had leaked in the intervening ten days.

The President spoke for more than an hour before taking questions. He admitted to making mistakes. He apologised for some of his past “wounding” comments to members of the public.

Whatever one may think of Macron’s politics or his occasional arrogance and glibness, this was an extraordinarily energetic and assured performance. Neither the current British Prime Minister nor the current US President could have mastered the detail of so many disparate subjects for so long.

To try to make a rag-tag catalogue of proposals appear to be a coherent programme, Macron invoked the spirit of Notre Dame, without mentioning the wounded cathedral by name. France must “rediscover the art of being French”, he said. It must learn how to defend the “permanences” of French life in a world in which certainties had disappeared.

The president was hoping to capitalise on the spirit of 'national unity' after the Notre-Dame blaze. Photo: AFP

The President said that he was more than ever convinced that his original reform programme – shifting the French social and political dial away from “protection” and towards “opportunity” and “responsibility” – was justified. His reforms were beginning to work with the creation of tens of thousands of permanent-contract jobs.

All the same, Macron said that he accepted that “Act 2 of his presidency” (note the theft of Gilets Jaunes terminology) must be more “human” and do more to help the poor, rural areas and the struggling lower middle classes. New approaches were also needed to close the gulf between citizens and the governing elite.

The more radical and emblematic Gilets Jaunes demands were rejected. There will be no “Citizens’ Initiative Referenda” or popular government online; no big one-off increase in the minimum wage; no abolition of VAT on food and other basic necessities.

Overall, the proposals seem well-judged – or perhaps cynically calculated.

Macron’s plan was not aimed at the diehard Gilets Jaunes who are still turning out for a series of weakening Saturday putsches (20,000 to 30,000 in recent weekends, compared to 280,000 in November). The remaining GJ’s are, in any case, unreachable.

The movement has mutated from its category-defying, rural and outer-suburban origins to something more urban, more traditional and hard left. The Gilets Jaunes and Black Bloc left-anarchist allies will doubtless seek to cause mayhem during the Labour Day demonstrations on May 1st (next Wednesday). They will continue to protest for many weeks to come because protest is now their only identity.

They are no longer a threat to Macron or French democracy.

Macron’s plan was aimed at those who sympathise with the original grievances of the movement and at stay-at-home GJ’s who have abandoned the early roundabout or city centre protests of November and December.

It was also clearly aimed at swing voters, especially centre-right swing voters, in the European elections on May 26th.

To “relaunch” his presidency Macron needs the symbolism of a “victory” for his La République en Marche party. To top the poll on May 26th, he does not need to unite a quarrelsome nation.

He does not need to repeat the 66 percent that he scored in the second round of the presidential election two years ago. He needs something like the 24 percent that he scored in the first round.

Polls already put Macron’s LREM at 21 to 23 percent, just ahead of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

Can Macron’s income tax cut and other concessions give him the couple of extra points that he needs? Probably.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.