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The 6 problems Emmanuel Macron faces in 2021

French President Emmanuel Macron's first three years in office were anything but uneventful, but now France's youngest head of state since Napoleon has several major problems he must resolve.

The 6 problems Emmanuel Macron faces in 2021
You would not want to be facing French president Emmanuel Macron's to-do list. Photo: AFP

1. Covid-19 pandemic

Even with the prospects of a vaccine soon within reach, Covid-19 will continue to be a main challenge for Macron in the coming weeks and months.

The president has laid out a three-stage plan to gradually ease the lockdown, but the big challenge will be to keep cases under control once the population begins to move more freely again.

READ ALSO Calendar: The next key dates in France's plan to end lockdown

If the government manages to keep the virus under control while continuing to relax rules in order to stimulate economic activity, it will be a major win that will help them over the several other hurdles outlined below.

If, on the other hand, the virus spirals out of control again, it could force the government to tighten rules for a third time, with potentially crushing economic consequences for many business owners already struggling from the preceding two lockdowns.

Place de la République in Paris during one of several protests in France against the security law on November 24th. Photo: AFP 

2. Article 24

A single clause in what actually is a far-reaching security bill has turned into a major headache for the government. Article 24 of the so-called “global security law” has caused uproar for its aim to penalise the act of publishing an image of an on-duty police officer if there is manifest intent to harm their “physical or psychological integrity”. 

Journalists groups and international NGOs say the wording of Article 24 is vague and open to abuse.

EXPLAINED: The new French law that restricts photos and videos of police officers

After hundreds of thousands of protesters across France took to the streets to protest the law following two incidents of violent behaviour by police – both revealed through videos published online – the government took the unusual step to backpedal on a text that already had been approved in the lower house of French parliament.

READ ALSO:

Macron, who reportedly wants to “re-establish confidence” between the police and the public opinion, will have to come up with a solution that pleases not only these two sides, but also MPs – many of whom have expressed outrage over what they say is a government attempt to thwart a decision that already has received democratic backing.

It's a tricky task, as the law was voted in by an overwhelming majority (388 MPs against 104, 66 abstentions), and the bill is headed to the Senate for approval.

3. International pressure over Islamist bill

Another legal document that has caused a stir is the government's bill targeting radical religious groups. Long known as the Islamic separatism bill, the final draft – to be unveiled in the coming week – is called Loi confortant les principes républicains (law confirming republican principles.

READ ALSO: What's in France's new law to crack down on Islamist extremism?

The radicalisation bill caught international attention and lead to public demonstrations in some Muslim countries, as well as scathing attacks in the US press which deemed it racist and Islamophobic. The French government says its ideas have been misunderstood and mistranslated.

Here too, Macron will have to strike the right balance between two sides; he will have to show that his government is cracking down on extremist groups without seeming to target all Muslims.

ANALYSIS: Has France really been 'deserted' by the American media over terror attacks?

 

As transport unions went on strike last winter, this was what the Paris metro generally looked like during rush hour. Photo: AFP

4. Pension reform

It seems like forever ago, but at this time last year the number one challenge the French government faced was the uproar over its proposed pension reform, which sparked the biggest mass strikes France had seen in 30 years.

In the end, the government forced the bill through parliament and it was supposed to be examined by the Senate in April, but the Covid-19 health crisis interrupted the process and the government decided to postpone the issue.

Now some officials believe it's time to bring the reform back, including the economy minister, who old Le Parisien that the reform should be an “absolute priority”.

READ ALSO French government unveils pension reform bill – so what is in it?

The government line is that the new system would be fairer, cheaper and simpler, while critics say it would harm those in working low-paid or physically challenging jobs, such as rail workers, teachers and nurses.

The big question is how the public opinion will react to the reform now, with Covid-19 having severely negatively impacted the economy –  which leads us to the next point.

French protesters with placards comparing the French president to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the pension reform strikes in Paris. Photo: AFP

5. Economic recession

France is just one of many countries struggling with a reeling economy that was severely hit by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

While the second lockdown has been a lite-version of the first with more businesses allowed to continue their activities, many businesses are on the verge of bankruptcy following months of reduced revenues.

Even with the government's aid schemes and economic stimulus packages, poverty numbers are on the rise in France

6. The looming election 

On top of all that, Macron has to look towards the next election. France’s next presidential election might not be until 2022, but the campaigning has already started.

Macron's biggest threat is currently far-right party leader Marine Le Pen, of Rassemblement National, who he beat in the second round of the 2017 elections.

Macron wants to weaken Le Pen by what in French is called chasser à droite (hunt to the right) and appeal to her voters. His interior minister, Gérald Darmanin has been behind a lot of tough-talking that has appealed to the right.

But Macron also needs to appeal to other voter groups who helped elect him back in 2017 – largely younger, urban and more left leaning groups.

For many of them environmental policies are key and they perceived the young French presidential candidate as the one who would turn France into a front line fighter against climate change. This is currently an image contested by France's top administrative court, which has given the government three months to show that it is taking action to meet its climate commitments.

 

 

 

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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