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Last night Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation. Did he save his skin? My first reaction was negative, based more on a visceral response to his presentation–poor–than on the substance of his concessions. Macron likes to project confidence and can do it fairly well. Contrition is not part of his natural repertoire. When he tries it, it seems affected.
Nevertheless, he apologized and accepted blame for his “hurtful language.” On top of that, he made real concessions. The increase in the minimum wage (SMIC) is slightly illusory. He didn’t increase the SMIC, which would have required employers to pay, but rather offered state funds to pay 100 euros a month more to workers earning the SMIC of 1200 euros. An actual increase in the SMIC would have put the same amount in the pockets of smicards, but it also would have had further knock-on effects, since the wages of many workers are indexed to the SMIC. The government couldn’t have absorbed the massive cost of such a move, and Macron did not want to force it on employers. Indeed, there are sound economic reasons for not doing so, since French wages, unlike US wages, have kept up with productivity growth. Macron also suspended a tax increase on retiree income and called upon firms to offer year-end bonuses.
These concessions were significant, and they may mollify the Gilets Jaunes. Some have already indicated that they see no reason to march again in Paris next Saturday. Others smell weakness and want to press their advantage. Meanwhile, lycée students, also sensing opportunity, took once again to the streets. And Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT, said flatly that the concessions were not enough.
Is this the famous “convergence des luttes” that Mélenchon has been urging and expecting since last May? It’s too early to tell. My hunch is that Macron may well have slipped out of the noose around his neck despite his unconvincing delivery. He put real money in people’s pockets, avoided any complex technocratic jiggery-pokery, and nevertheless gave up nothing essential from the core of his reform.
He will, however, now have to face Brussels, since the French deficit will pass the fatal 3% mark. Indeed, it may go as high as 3.5, a full point above the (optimistically) projected Italian deficit of 2.4. Yes, I am well aware that Italy position is structurally quite different from France’s, but most citizens aren’t, and you can bet that Matteo Salvini will make much of “discrimination” by Brussels. This means that the last hope that Macron can lead a European reform effort has been dashed.
What is more, Macron’s retreat shows that there is more margin for maneuver than he has admitted. It shows that determined resistance can get results. It also shows that this is indeed a top-down government, in which the president can make major moves by fiat, without the slightest demurrer from the parliament, where the LREM majority exemplifies the famous parlement godillot, which follows orders as swiftly as a well-drilled regiment. Will deputies of either the majority or opposition now find their voices and begin to convey more effectively the wishes of their constituents?
The GJ protests have proven, if proof were needed, that there is a democratic deficit in France. Macron promised yesterday to work more closely with mayors, but the mayors are almost as dispersed and atomized as the citizens to whom they are close. They cannot act as the corps intermédiaires that Tocqueville insisted no democracy can do with out. Macron’s problem is that he needs forces capable of informing as well as checking him, but he has yet to prove whether he is capable of working with people who do not agree with him. This will be his next test.