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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Macron’s speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In the wake of Emmanuel Macron's (unusually brief) speech to the nation and an orgy of blame and speculation, John Lichfield takes a look at how the turbulent months ahead are likely to play out in France.

OPINION: Macron's speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?
Emmanuel Macron making his speech on Wednesday evening. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

In eight minutes on Wednesday evening, we saw the best of Emmanuel Macron and the worst of Emmanuel Macron. In his TV address to the nation, he was confident; he was solemn; above all he was brief.

He accepted that the hung parliament elected last Sunday reflected “deep divisions” in the country. He said that France  must “learn to govern differently…We must build new compromises…based on dialogue, open-mindedness and respect”.

But he failed to admit any share of responsibility in the impasse which voters have created. He said that he still had a “clear mandate” from his Presidential victory in April. He called for compromise but said that some of his own promises – no new taxes, no increased debt – were untouchable.

Hear more analysis from John and The Local team in our Talking France podcast.

In April, Macron acknowledged that he had won partly through the votes of people who disliked him but feared Marine Le Pen more. He promised to govern with them in mind. He hasn’t.

His alliance drifted through the parliamentary campaign without strongly defending Macron’s presidential programme, let alone coming up with new ideas to appease the voters, of Right or Left, who supported him on April 24th by default.

That is not the only reason for the mess that France is now in. Other factors played a part: voter fatigue; inflation; the perpetual French instinct to demand “change” but resist all changes; a campaign which largely ignored the gathering threats in the world outside.

France now finds itself, by accident, in a world which the present generation of French politicians have never known – a German, Italian, Spanish or Belgian world of coalitions, compromise and shifting alliances.

This was the world – a world of revolving-door governments –  which Charles de Gaulle devised the Presidency-dominated Fifth Republic to replace. Some argue that the return of parliamentary power will be A Good Thing.

It will generate more profound political debate and a culture of constructive compromise. I doubt it. The new National Assembly – with nine political groups, including large blocs from the Hard Left and Far Right – will be more bear-pit than Periclean Athens.

There has been a witch-hunt going on in the French media about who is “responsible” for the fact that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National leaped from 8 seats to 89 in the new Assembly.

READ ALSO Is there really a ‘voter surge’ to the far-right in France?

The Left, both in France and abroad, has blamed President Macron’s Ensemble! alliance for failing to give clear advice to its supporters last Sunday to vote for the Left in two-way, second round contests with Lepennist candidates. As a result, they say Le Pen won at least 30 seats which might have gone to the Left-Green alliance, Nupes.

They fail to point out – and the French media has only belatedly started to point out – that exactly the same thing happened, only more so, with those Left voters who faced second round races between Macron and Le Pen candidates. Almost 60 percent of the Far Right victories – 53 – came in two-way contests  between the Rassemblement National and Macron’s Ensemble! alliance.

Exit polls vary but all of them suggest that voters of the Left  abstained, or even voted for Le Pen candidates, to “screw Macron” more than Macron voters abstained or voted Le Pen to “screw” the Left.

In effect, the Macron alliance and the Left-Green alliance shot themselves collectively in the feet by abandoning the so-called Republican Front against Le Pen. Each might have won at least 30 extra seats if both had voted for one another. The Macron alliance might even have just scraped a majority – which is presumably what Left-Green voters wanted to prevent.

A similar hue and cry is in progress against the Macron camp for its alleged willingness to work with Le Pen and her deputies in the new parliament. There has been some loose talk by some Macron allies. Most senior Macron lieutenants have ruled out deals or alliances with the Far Right bloc.

But what of Macron himself, who asked Marine Le Pen when they met on Tuesday whether she would contemplate joining a government of national unity? He asked the same of most of the party-leaders he met.

All refused and as Macron said in his eight-minute address, the idea is impractical and unjustified.

Why raise it at all then? Especially with Le Pen?

Partly, I think, because Macron believes that as President of the Republic he cannot pretend that the 89 Far Right deputies do not exist. Partly, I believe that Macron is playing a would-be clever waiting game.

He sees no real prospect of a long-term alliance with the 64 centre-right deputies. He expects in the short term to conduct  urgent business – including a new anti-inflation package  -through ad hoc alliances with the centre-right and moderate Left.

In the longer term, he believes (and maybe hopes) that such cooperation is doomed to fail. He wants to be seen to have given all combinations of parliamentary peace a chance before he “declares war” and calls a new legislative election next year.

Hence last night’s message. What are all the groups in parliament – including the three Macron-supporting ones – prepared to concede to allow the vital business of government to continue?

It might have been smarter politics if Macron had said, more clearly, that he also is ready to make concessions and listen to other people’s ideas.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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