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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France begins a new political era and it’s going to get messy

France has entered a new political era (or reverted to an old one) in which parliament rules but voters still demand action to ease soaring prices. John Lichfield explains the muddle that has engulfed French politics this summer and why it won't end soon.

OPINION: France begins a new political era and it's going to get messy
The French National Assembly. (Photo by Geoffroy Van der Hasselt / AFP)

People in France, and elsewhere, are suddenly fascinated by an institution which they long ignored; the French parliament.

How did the far-right Rassemblement National – supposedly beyond the pale of normal political discourse –  end up with two out of the six vice-presidencies in the new assembly?  

Why has the powerful position of chairman of the finance committee gone to Eric Coquerel, a veteran of the destroy-the-system Left (who now stands accused of behaving improperly towards women)?

Why is the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne scared to put her new government and its programme to a vote of confidence in the assembly today? Answer: because she might lose and her government might collapse after only two days.

READ MORE: Key points: How Macron has reshuffled French cabinet for tricky second term

Why then is Madame Borne happy to face a censure motion from the Left (possibly on Friday)?  Answer: because the rules for censure motions are different and Borne and her government will win that vote or at least survive it.

There is also a single answer to all these questions. France has entered a new political era; or has reverted to an old one. Parliament is divided and therefore parliament rules. The President can no longer treat the National Assembly as his rubber-stamp or echo chamber. We have returned to the France of the 1950s or the 1930s, before Charles de Gaulle invented the supposedly all-powerful presidency (but left the ultimate power in parliament).

Parliaments, especially hung or divided parliaments, are by their nature messy or muddled. France is therefore entering a period of muddled politics at a time when it is also confronting a land war in Europe, soaring inflation, a resurgent Covid pandemic and the possibility of a global recession.

The muddle will continue for a while. President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed yesterday something that has been obvious for days: no other large bloc of deputies in the assembly elected last month is willing to enter a coalition with his minority government.

Madame Borne will therefore struggle on with her 250 deputies (39 short of an overall majority). She will try to persuade parts of the Right and Left to abstain in sufficient numbers to allow the passage of urgent business such as her anti-inflation package and new measures against the seventh (yes, the seventh) wave of Covid-19.

Only a handful of independent deputies will support her consistently. Others, on the Left and Right, will support her, or more likely abstain, from time to time. Despite the posturing censure motion to be tabled by the Hard Left today, no-one wants to bring the government down yet. No one wants another election yet. No one wants to bring government to a halt yet.

There is a strong chance that there will be a new election in the first half of next year. Until then, there will be a period of bluff and double-bluff in which the government will blame the opposition for its failure to govern effectively and the much- divided opposition will try to trip up the government (although not so much as to annoy the voters).

Ah, yes the voters. The half who bothered to vote on 12 and 19 June elected a blocked parliament. They still expect government to deliver them stuff, like continued subsidies on pump prices, gas and electricity.

In the meantime, we are all going to have to start to take the lower house of the French parliament seriously and learn about its arcane procedures and traditions. Some of the instant takes in recent days in the French media, but also in the UK and US media, have been grossly misleading.

Why DID the far right Rassemblement National end up with two out of the six vice-presidencies – or deputy speakers – in the new assembly? Part of the Left in France – but also in the UK – has accused Macron’s allies, and even President Macron himself, of making secret deals with Marine Le Pen’s Far Right while pretending to exclude them.

In truth, Le Pen’s breakthrough in the June elections entitled her to a share in the running of parliament under the parliament’s rules. Her 89 deputies guaranteed her one vice-presidency. She ended up with two because the centre-right Les Républicains  preferred to hold on to one of the lucrative positions of quaestor (the three deputies who run the assembly’s finances).

A messy deal was concocted which gave all four large blocs in the assembly a proportional share of the spoils. The Left went along with the deal at first and then part of the Left cried foul. A Macronist conspiracy? Hardly.

At the same time, the Right and Far Right are furious with pro-Macron deputies for failing to conspire with them to deprive the Hard Left – in the dishevelled guise of Eric Coquerel  – of the powerful position of chairman of the finance committee.

By tradition, each year since 2009, the ruling party has withdrawn from the vote to allow the chairmanship of this committee to go to the biggest party in opposition. The right and far right wanted the Macronistes to break that unwritten rule this year to block Coquerel. He was the radical choice imposed by the hard left La France Insoumise on the wider Left-Green bloc.

The Macronistes refused to conspire with the Right. Coquerel got the job, which will give him considerable power to embarrass the Macron government and the capitalist system. In the meantime, it has embarrassed him. He stands formally accused of behaving in an aggressively, insistent sexual way towards women, despite being a leading figure in a fiercely feminist party. He dismisses the accusations as “unfounded”.

None of the supposed, wicked backroom dealing by Macron’s alliance has won them significant new support in parliament. Elisabeth Borne will refuse to put herself through a confidence vote today because she knows that she might lose it.  

Such a vote is decided by simple majority of those voting. Even if part of the opposition abstained, Borne might lose.

A  censure motion is different. It needs a positive majority of the 577 deputies – in other words 289 votes – to succeed. The hard left LFI has insisted on bringing a censure motion on Friday and has pushed other left-wing parties to go along. Some Socialist deputies may abstain all the same.

If only 50 or so deputies abstain, Borne will survive. The centre-right (62 seats) has already announced that they will do so. So has Le Pen’s bloc of 89 deputies.

Expect, therefore, lots of new, indignant hot-takes accusing Macron of conspiracies with the Right and  Far Right – which is exactly why the LFI insisted on a censure vote in the first place.

Aren’t parliamentary politics fun?

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MONEY

Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website www.service-public.fr. This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.

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