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Social Protests in France: How Will Macron Cope? 3 Questions to Marc Lazar

Social Protests in France: How Will Macron Cope? 3 Questions to Marc Lazar
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

For weeks now, social protests have been rising in France. For instance, SNCF rail workers have been fighting to preserve their special status, currently threatened by a reform announced by the government, students have been occupying universities to protest against a bill implementing a more selective entry to higher education, and so on. A year after his election, this is the first big challenge opposing Emmanuel Macron directly to the French people. How will he deal with this issue? Marc Lazar, Professor of History and Political Sociology at Sciences Po and President of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, shares his analysis.

Can the current strike of rail workers spark a wider movement of social protests?

It is always difficult to identify the factors of the widening of a social movement.That being said, we have to acknowledge that the current social climate in France is stamped with major uncertainties. The employment situation and various inequalities could be taken advantage of by protesters who are hostile to Emmanuel Macron - be they from the CGT, one of the main French trade unions, from France Insoumise, the far-left party, or simply far-left militants - in order to organize a large-scale opposition. Indeed, many have been looking for a way to take their revenge in the streets since the presidential and legislative elections.

Yet some elements might still prevent such an uprising. At this point, mobilization is still fragmented, despite calls for a “convergence of struggles”. The difficult coordination of actions led by trade unions is also an issue of its own. Finally, we should acknowledge that public opinion has so far opted for a “wait-and-see” approach, and still holds a strong interest for Emmanuel Macron’s reformative action. His popularity is still quite high and the electorate grants him credit for his manifest strong will, even if it doesn’t agree with all of his reforms. The last results of the polling organization Ifop indicated that French people appreciate the fact that he does what he had promised he would, which is a significant argument for the head of State. 

The splintering of movements led by trade unions and the diversity of emerging protests across the country are the two main obstacles to the development of a large-scale social movement. However, the lack of any political alternative able to overthrow the current government is the best explanation to why the emerging sector-specific protests have failed in France.

Will the success of Emmanuel Macron’s term depend on this tug of war? Is his political strategy different from that of his predecessors?

I don’t know if the success of the President’s term is at stake, but I am certain that his credibility is. This is an important point. Emmanuel Macron has always wanted to display firmness and determination. In most of his interventions, he emphasizes his willingness to carry out the agenda he put forward during the campaign, and which he thus considers as approved by the French people. Yet, “at the same time” (to use his favorite expression), the authority figure that he wishes to embody requires small concessions. This could apply to the SNCF national railway reform, on which he could agree to a State assumption of the debt.
No doubt this is a difficult time for the President. If he comes out victorious of  this sequence, he will be considered as a statesman who is firm and has authority, and will secure the support he gets from part of the right-wing electorate, opposed to the current protests. He could however be cut off from the left-wing electorate who voted for him a year ago, which might end up being a problem. The latest opinion polls highlight this shift: French people who thought he was at the center of the political spectrum now consider him to be center-right. At the end of this “social Spring”, the President might seem even more right-wing.

The current situation inevitably refers to the one Alain Juppé had to confront in 1995, when he announced that, despite the protests, he would not change his position. However, Emmanuel Macron is not facing an organized political opposition, which is why he can afford to show such firmness. Meanwhile, the President wishes to strengthen social dialogue, notably in the SNCF national railway company and in public hospitals. Yet the type of dialogue he wishes to foster still needs to be defined.

As a candidate to the presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron had announced that he would give a new political orientation to the European project. He is perfectly aware that in order to achieve this, he will need to prove first that he is able to successfully reform France. There is no going back for the President, especially given that his European project seems to be bogged down by the Northern countries’ opposition, itself backed by German conservatives and some governments of Central and Eastern Europe.

What role have social movements played in the French political landscape and society? Do you see any evolution in the past 15 years or so?

First, we must specify what we mean by “social movement”, as the expression has too often been used to describe unrelated situations. It must be distinguished from sector-specific movements, which only defend the interests of a specific category of citizens or workers. In sociology, social movements go beyond the sole sector-specific demands, in order to propose a new model for of economic, social and political relations. The current protest at the SNCF national railway company is both sector-specific and social. Workers defend a conception of public service which they believe represents a very specific social model. There is therefore an element of social movement to the SNCF protest. 

France is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Mai 68” (literally May 1968), a wide social movement, which gathered various sector-specific demands and put forward a new way to organize society. The protesters of Mai 68 proposed a new arrangement of human relations and aspired to a alternative way of life. Of course, this might be considered as utopian. These past decades, very few similar social movements have emerged in France. Except for the “Manif Pour Tous”, a protest against gay marriage which, even though it was essentially conservative, defended a completely different vision of the social organization. One could even say it was a new anthropology of the relationship between men and women. To that extent, the “Manif Pour Tous” protest was a social movement.

Aside from that, protests in France are usually that of sector-specific movements, which at times can be very radical and keen to fight. We are currently witnessing a real radicalization process, which we might fear could impact part of the enrolled students. The lack of any credible political perspective is, until now, the reason why these movements have not yet been able to develop on a larger scale. 

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