In France, the strike over a pension reform project is over, but it had gone on far too long. Millions of people have been affected by the refusal to work of a few thousand civil servants, but Macron remained invisible and silent for several weeks in December 2019. This public transport strike was the longest since 1986. Many French people were struggling to get from their home to their workplace, but Macron did not really address the subject until his year-end wishes – a strange occasion for such a topic – more than three weeks after the start of the strike.
While Macron had pension reform in his campaign program, and while he was personally elected by an absolute majority by universal suffrage and the parliamentary majority of his party stems directly from this election, the President of the Republic preferred to let his Prime Minister speak on this subject, to use him as a “fuse”, an expression which is as frequent in France as it is condescending. This absence of Macron from the public sphere should be shocking for everyone, because it shows a person who does not take full responsibility for his actions. But this absence is especially frustrating because Macron does have the powers to carry out this reform. Instead of complaining that France is “irréformable”, as he has already done, he should start by better understanding and using the power that is his via the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.
At the risk of appearing provocative, what would Putin have done? A comparison with the Russian President is interesting because Putin constitutionally enjoys powers similar to those of Macron, because the Russian Constitution of 1993 is largely modeled on the French one of 1958. In addition, Putin has carried out in 2018 a major pension reform which earned him strong disapproval in Russian public opinion. In fact, the Duma voted and Putin signed a reform to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 years for men and 55 to 63 years for women, no less. Critics would say that Russia is not as democratic as France, that it does not really have rule of law, that it does not have political pluralism in the form of the intermediate bodies that exist in France. There is some truth to this criticism, but this does not mean the example of Putin can be completely dismissed, especially during this strike which has affected so many French.
In reality, Macron could have done much more. For starters, he should have entered the political arena and shown his support and concern for the millions of French who were impacted by the arm wrestling between government and unions. This is what Putin does; he is constantly in communication with the Russian people, directly and through the media, especially in this kind of tense social situation. And no one can claim that this impacts his authority or weakens the position of the President of the Russian Federation. This is an excuse that is often given in France to explain why the president apparently has to remain silent and stay above the fray (“prendre de l’hauteur”, as the French say) during major social crises, when these crises are the very consequences of his own political will (the yellow vests crisis is another example). The President of the French Republic is obviously not the only one responsible for the crisis the country is going through, but he is certainly the first and the last responsible for this type of social crisis. Putin understands this and acts accordingly.
Macron should have had as an absolute priority – not to reform the pension system – but to end the strike, or at least limit its scope significantly, in order to save citizens further difficulties. Constitutionally, the French President is responsible to the sovereign people, and could therefore judge that the strike of certain parts of the public service is not acceptable if the absence of public service causes prejudice and suffering to the French people. This is, moreover, what the Constitutional Council decided (n° 79-105 DC of July 25, 1979): that the right to strike is not simply self-given in the public service, but on the contrary, is always to be put in relation to the public service provided, and that it is possible to decide “the prohibition of the right to strike to agents whose presence is essential to ensure the functioning of the elements of the service whose interruption would affect the essential needs of the country”. Is not public transport used daily by the French is an “essential need “? Certain public functions are already excluded from the right to strike, such as the police, judges, soldiers, penitentiary staff, etc. And in 1964, De Gaulle had already succeeded in prohibiting the right to strike of air traffic controllers (law then partially repealed in 1984).
The limits of power are not known if they are not tested. Macron is must consider all legislative levers and policies at its disposal to implement its own policy, as does Putin when necessary. Concretely, there are several options available to him. With a majority in parliament or in the Council of Ministers, the President could pass a law by ordinance, which would limit the right to strike in public transport. The government could also seize article 49-3 of the Constitution in order to put back the unions in the common civil law, by making possible the seizure of their goods, which is not possible today (for this a modification of the Code du Travail is required). In this way, Macron could also request that the accounts of the unions become public and be subject to the control of an independent body, which is not the case today. Macron can seize the Constitutional Council, in order to introduce a more restrictive regulation of the right to strike, or to ask that the law on the “service minimum” is strictly applied. The Council of State could also be seized by the President, to extend the prohibition of the right to strike for certain categories of civil servants. Politically, these initiatives would probably require the alignment between the government and the management of the public establishments concerned (notably the RATP, managing the Paris subway, and the SNCF, the French State railway operator). In short, Macron must bring together his constitutional law experts and think about the exact tactics to adopt. It is not acceptable that in a State, supposedly governed by the rule of law, a few thousand strikers in public transport could harm so much and prevent the executive and the legislative branch of the French State from passing a major element of its political program.
The legal and political tools necessary to carry out significant reforms in France and to limit strikes by civil servants are therefore available to the presidents of the Fifth Republic. The successive failures are mainly due to lack of firmness, clarity and political courage of the last presidents: Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and now Macron. To successfully implement reforms in France, it is therefore necessary to fully want to exercise the power of President and not worry so much about opinion polls, the opposition, and the media. Macron has shown neither the will nor the courage to implement the reforms that he himself wanted. Reforms and policy initiatives such as the raise of gasoline prices, the transformation of the status of railway employees (SNCF) or the pension reform, cannot even be proposed, in the current French political climate, without serious consequences for the French people.
In order to reform France, the political culture needs to change; more precisely, a change in the balance of power in favor of the President of the Republic is necessary. In other words, to reform France, the exercise of presidential power should be closer to the one in Russia. Such an initiative can obviously only come from the President himself, the main protagonist of this recurring French political tragedy. What a pity that Macron is the umpteenth president not to have understood this.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.