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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: What France’s financial aid bill has revealed about the likelihood of early elections

A package of economic aid to help the French deal with the cost of living crisis has proved the first big test so far of France's new government, which has lost its absolute majority - John Lichfield looks at what the bill's stormy passage can tell us about the months ahead in France.

ANALYSIS: What France's financial aid bill has revealed about the likelihood of early elections
Finance minister Bruno Le Maire addresses the Assemblée nationale during the storm debates on the cost of living crisis. Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

A messy experiment is in progress this week on the left bank of the river Seine in Paris. It is called parliamentary democracy.

As a result, petrol and diesel prices may be subsidised this autumn more than the government intended – up to 30 centimes a litre, instead of 18 centimes. Opinions may differ on whether that’s a good thing in the week that France burned in a climate-change induced heatwave.  

For the first time in nearly 30 years, a French President and a French government are having to calculate, cajole and compromise to get basic business through the National Assembly. A €20 billion package of anti-inflation measures is proceeding, snail-like, through the lower house of parliament where June’s election left President Macron’s allies 39 seats short of an overall majority.

There are 20 articles in the cost-of-living package. After three days, deputies have approved five of them, including a 4 percent increase in pensions and welfare payments. The assembly will have to sit until late on Saturday – in July, no less – to meet its timetable and send the government’s plan, and related budget amendments, to the Sénat next week.   

The fact that a quarter of the package has already been agreed suggests that the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and her government will find a minimum way of governing over the next few months.

But the most contested articles – notably how to reduce the cost of petrol and diesel – have yet to be reached.

The government wants to phase out its existing 18 centimes a litre subsidy on pump prices from October and replace it with direct payments to people who used their cars for work or who have to drive to work. Opposition groups of Right and Left want massive cuts in petrol and diesel taxes for all.

According to leaks to the French media, the government is now working on a compromise with the centre-right Les Républicains (LR)). The centre-right wanted originally to cut VAT to reduce pump prices to €1.50 a litre (while complaining about the state deficit and debt).

The Républicains leadership and the government have provisionally agreed that the existing 18 centimes a litre subsidy should be  increased to at least 30 centimes from October and phased out from the New Year. The proposed payments to high-mileage motorists would disappear.

It remains to be seen whether all the 61 centre-right deputies – more than enough to give the government a majority  – will go along with this deal. The first couple of weeks of the new assembly have shown that two of the three main opposition groups – the Left and Centre-Right – are themselves much divided.

The government lost a late-night vote on a relatively minor anti-Covid measure last week because some centre-right deputies defied their own leadership and voted against.

The landscape of the new assembly is broadly as follows.

The hard-left La France Insoumise and the Greens oppose almost everything. They shout a great deal and table motions which insult the government. They also complain that the government refuses to work with them.

Their aims are to show off to their core support by: a) opposing Macron at every turn b) defying parliamentary convention.

The rest of the Left – the Socialists and Communists – are calmer. They oppose most of the cost-of-living package as inadequate but abstain, rather than vote against.

The Far Right Rassemblement National is trying to embarrass the government and the Left by seeming serious and constructive. They have opposed most of the package but have voted for some articles and abstained on others.

The government is refusing to negotiate with the Far Right but – to its discomfort – needs them to abstain, at least, on key issues.

The centre-right Les Républicains (LR) are the pivotal group. They are much courted by the government but undisciplined and unreliable. Some of them are closer to the Far Right than to Macron’s Centre.

It is possible that the LR will split in the months ahead but any Macron-compatible centre-right sub-group is likely to fall far short of the 39 extra votes that the government needs.

The cost-of-living package – and maybe even more so the related budget amendments – are an important test of the government’s ability to govern. In her dealings with the assembly so far, the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has shown herself to be more politically astute than many people had imagined.

The package will survive, somewhat battered, to progress to the upper house next week and return to the assembly for a final vote early next month. But this is the easy part.

Even if they dislike the details, most of the much-splintered opposition does not want to seem to block inflation relief. The assembly is voting, slowly and painfully, this week on something that French people want.

How can the government, without a parliamentary majority, push through the stuff that France does not want? Such as pensions reform.

There is no obvious answer to that question. My bet would still be on a new parliamentary election next year.   

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POLITICS

‘A good thing’ for footballers to express values, says France’s PM

France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne - speaking in Berlin - said that footballers should be allowed to express their values, amid controversy over FIFA's stance against the 'OneLove' armband on the pitch.

'A good thing' for footballers to express values, says France's PM

“There are rules for what happens on the field but I think it’s a good thing for players to be able to express themselves on the values that we obviously completely share, while respecting the rules of the tournament,” said Borne at a press conference in Berlin on Friday.

Germany’s players made headlines before Wednesday’s shock loss to Japan when the team lined up for their pre-match photo with their hands covering their mouths after FIFA’s threat to sanction players wearing the rainbow-themed armband.

Seven European nations, including Germany, had previously planned for their captains to wear the armband, but backed down over FIFA’s warning.

Following Germany’s action, Wales and the Netherlands have since come out to say they would not mirror the protest.

Borne’s visit to Germany was her first since she was named to her post in May.

Following talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the two leaders signed an agreement for “mutual support” on “guaranteeing their energy supplies”.

Concrete measures outlined in the deal include France sending Germany gas supplies as Berlin seeks to make up for gaping holes in deliveries from Russia.

Germany meanwhile would help France “secure its electricity supplies over winter”, according to the document.

France had since 1981 been a net exporter of electricity to its neighbours because of its nuclear plants. But maintenance issues dogging the plants have left France at risk of power cuts in case of an extremely cold winter.

The two leaders also affirmed their countries’ commitment to backing Ukraine “to the end of” its conflict with invaders Russia.

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