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PODCAST: Is France going far-right and is Macron panicking about petrol?

As the French presidential election campaign gets underway, join The Local France team and our guest experts including John Lichfield to examine the big questions of the campaign trail - is France moving inexorably towards the far right? What explains the geographical voting divide? And just how rich is Emmanuel Macron?

PODCAST: Is France going far-right and is Macron panicking about petrol?
Image: The Local France

This week on Talking France, Ben McPartland is joined by Local France editor Emma Pearson, political columnist John Lichfield and political analyst Jean-Yves Camus as we examine the big questions facing France and its voters, ahead of the 2022 presidential election. 

Click HERE to listen to Talking France on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify. 

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the far right and a political analyst at France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told us: “I have always written that the Front National [Marine Le Pen’s party] is here to stay as a significant political force, but it has no capability of coming to power. 

“But what is new is Eric Zemmour, and if you add Le Pen and Zemmour’s vote together you’re up to 30 percent – that’s huge.”

As the French government moves to announce more help for drivers to deal with spiralling petrol costs, we asked John Lichfield whether the government appeared to be panicking over the cost-of-living crisis.

He said: “I think not panicking yet but floundering – it seems to be very difficult for the Finance Ministry to get its head around the issue of tax cuts.”

Also this week, Ben and Emma dissect the latest news for the election campaigns and have a look at the déclarations de patrimonie – the startlingly detailed information that each candidate must reveal about their financial situation. Some candidates are into their overdrafts while one is worth a cool €10 million (and it might not be the one you think).

And we’re looking at some French phrases to help you understand the elections, from crowd-baths to granny-hugging.

We will be releasing new episodes of this podcast every Tuesday. Click HERE to listen to Talking France on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify. 

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Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest standoff with France's trade unions since coming to power in 2017, with the outcome of a series of strikes and protests seen as decisive for both sides.

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

The 45-year-old leader has made raising the retirement age a signature domestic policy of his second term in office — something the unions and millions of protesters are determined to block.

After two days of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, AFP looks at what is likely to happen next on the streets, in parliament, inside the government, and in wider French public opinion.

On the streets

Labour leaders were delighted with their second day of protests on Tuesday, which they claimed had seen around 2.5 million people hit the streets, including in many small and medium-sized towns.

Official estimates put the figure at 1.27 million, compared to 1.1 million people during round one on January 19th, according to the interior ministry.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

Momentum is clearly with the unions who announced two further days of protests and strikes next week, on Tuesday and Saturday.

“The movement is growing and spread across the whole country,” the head of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, unions no longer have the ability to paralyse the country and working-from-home practices mean most white-collar workers can easily adjust to transport stoppages.

The biggest fear of authorities is a repeat of the 2018 so-called “Yellow Vest” protests — a spontaneous movement drawn mostly from the countryside and small-town France that led to shockingly violent clashes with police. 

“The trauma was so big and the violence so great, I don’t see it happening again for the moment,” Bruno Cautres from Sciences Po university in Paris told AFP earlier this month. 

In government 

The government was expecting a rough ride — few major policy changes happen in France without protests, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy faced similar resistance with his pension reform in 2010.

Macron has faced numerous challenges from the unions in the past and has always succeeded in pushing through his pro business agenda and social security reforms.

The only exception was his first attempt at pension reform — also highly contested — which he withdrew in 2020 during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been the public face of the latest proposals, while Macron has kept his statements and appearances to a minimum, as is his habit.

But with the battle lines hardening and protests growing, the president might be forced to enter the fray. 

“I think the president will speak, but not right now,” a minister told AFP on condition of anonymity. “If he did it now, it would look like we’re panicking.”

In parliament

The draft legislation will be debated for the first time in the 577-seat National Assembly from Monday.

Macron’s allies are the largest group with 170 seats, but they do not hold a majority after a weaker-than-expected showing in June elections.

Support from the 62 rightwing Republicans (LR) party MPs will be essential.

LR has long supported raising the retirement age, but there are doubts over how many of their MPs will give the government their backing.

“I’m not asking the government to give in to the protests. This reform needs to be done,” LR parliamentary party chief Olivier Marleix said on Wednesday.

The lower house debate will finish on February 17th at the latest when a vote can be called — or the government could transfer it to the Senate or ram it through with controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a ballot.

The bill is expected to pass the conservative-dominated Senate, where a vote is to take place by mid-March.

Public opinion

The latest polling figures show a growing majority opposes the reform and supports the protests, with roughly two in three people against the proposals.

Ministers have struggled to find winning arguments, at times arguing the changes are needed to reduce government spending, at others insisting they will make the pension system fairer.

“The government has not won with the argument that it is necessary,” Bernard Sananes, the head of the Elabe polling group, told AFP. “And it is fighting on another, more intense front which is that the reform is seen as unfair.”

In private, Macron’s allies insist their best hope is for parliament to quickly approve the legislation that will never be popular but might grudgingly be accepted as necessary.

“The question is how big the protest movement will be and how long it will last,” the minister told AFP.