Macron signs labour law but has to lower senate ambitions

President lowers sights from 90 to 50 seats, which could endanger his constitutional plans

French president Emmanuel Macron signs documents to promulgate a new labour bill at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron signs documents to promulgate a new labour bill at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images

 

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday signed decrees reforming the French labour code, live in front of television cameras, after a cabinet meeting. He called the reform “the most extensive since the start of the Fifth Republic” in 1958.

Some reforms, such as the right to work digitally from home, will take effect within days. Macron said the entire set of changes will be in force by January 1st.

By consulting with trade unions through the summer, then pushing the reforms through quickly, Macron seems to have taken left-wing opponents by surprise. Turnout for protests organised by the communist CGT has been low.

The first march organised by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party will take place on Saturday and is considered a test of Mélenchon’s power to prevent the liberalisation of the French economy.

Macron faces another test, in the form of elections to renew 170 of 348 seats in the French Senate on Sunday. The results will almost certainly be negative for Macron.

Last June, Macron’s newly forged La République en Marche and centrist allies won an absolute majority of 359 of 577 seats in the National Assembly.

Senator François Patriat, who led La République en Marche’s campaign in the upper house, has lowered his ambitions from 90 to 50 seats for the presidential party. Most of Patriat’s converts to La République en Marche are former Socialists like himself.

The conservative party Les Républicain holds the majority in the outgoing Senate, and will continue to control the upper house. Gérard Larcher, the party’s speaker of the Senate, has distanced himself from Macron.

French senators are not elected by popular vote, but by 162,000 grands électeurs, of whom 96 per cent are town councillors.

“Through a mixture of amateurism and technocracy, Macron’s administration committed huge errors that angered local officials all over France,” says Prof Pascal Perrineau, a leading political scientist.

Those errors include: freezing €300 million in national funding for local governments; ending the €150 million réserve parlementaire for the pet projects of deputies and senators; doing away with the residence tax that benefited local governments for 80 per cent of French households; and abolishing two-thirds of the 459,000 subsidised emplois aidés that helped local government function.

Counterweight to Macron

The Senate will be the only institutional counterweight to Macron, and it could endanger his plans to make constitutional changes requiring a three-fifths majority in both houses.

Macron’s core base of a quarter of the electorate – his score in the first round of the presidential election – remains firm, Perrineau said. It is comprised mainly of highly educated, affluent people living in big cities.

Most of the 66.1 per cent who voted for Macron in the run-off did so not because they wanted him, but because they did not want his opponent, the extreme right-wing leader Marine Le Pen. The “vertiginous fall” in Macron’s popularity ratings is explained by the rebellion of those who voted for him by default, Perrineau says.

Macron’s support extends well beyond the centrist Modem and UDI parties, to the “social liberal” wing of the moribund Socialist Party, and the moderate, liberal faction of Les Républicains.

Many Républicains are deeply hostile to Laurent Wauquiez, the hardliner who is expected to become the party’s leader in December, and they too may defect to Macron.

To be an effective president, Macron must coalesce the forces that support him, something he has not yet managed to do.

Front National woes

In the meantime, Le Pen’s Front National is struggling through its fourth major split since its foundation in 1972. Le Pen is a candidate to succeed herself at the party congress in Lille next March. If Macron’s term is a failure, she could again attempt to persuade voters that she is the only solution they have not tried yet.

Despite his abrasive personality, Wauquiez is an intelligent politician with a strategy and strong regional support. His party is the second group in the National Assembly, in addition to controlling the Senate.

The Socialists have virtually disintegrated, to the point where the party put its historic headquarters in the Rue de Solférino up for sale this week.

Many disillusioned socialists reject the idea of reorganising the left around its most extreme fringe, led by Mélenchon. On Thursday Mélenchon appealed to Front National supporters who are “angry, not fascists” to join him.

Mélenchon is a fiery orator, adept at plucking the revolutionary strings in the French heart. But two-thirds of respondents to an Odoxa poll published on Friday said they do not want him to be president.

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