Macron’s Quiet Summer May Turn to Anger as Voters Return to Work

Gregory Viscusi

(Bloomberg) -- Macron’s quiet summer season could turn to discontent in the fall.

President Emmanuel Macron has spent three weeks in the Cote d’Azur, south of France, alternating between the beach and preparing for a delicate G-7 summit on Aug. 24. The president’s holidays have so far been relatively uneventful, a contrast with his two previous summers marked by intense policy work, a soccer World Cup triumph and a dangerous scandal.

All the same, “the return from the vacations could be quite agitated,” said Sylvain Boulouque, a French historian who has written books about popular movements. “There are quite a few reforms the government is proposing that could bring out large demonstrations.”

While Macron himself doesn’t face voters until 2022, any turbulence would be an unwelcome backdrop as he gears up for local elections in the spring that are essential for developing his three-year-old party.

Unhappiness

Unions are promising major actions against his plans to streamline France’s unemployment insurance system. The tension has already been simmering during the summer with striking health workers, youths angry about police violence and farmers vandalizing offices of lawmakers who backed for a free-trade pact with Canada. On top of that, the grassroots Yellow Vests movement isn’t dead, and Brexit beckons.

A recent poll by Ifop said 44% of the French “understand but don’t approve” of the attacks on deputies’ offices and 9% -- that’s more than 4 million adults -- fully approve.

Not Mellow

The Yellow Vests already forced the most significant U-turn of Macron’s presidency when he announced 15 billion euros of spending increases and tax cuts in December.

Protesters had blocked roads across France and held sometimes violent demonstrations in Paris and other cities to protest rising gasoline taxes as the movement morphed into wider rejection of Macron’s ruling style. A handful of members were out marching Aug. 17 through various French cities for the 40th consecutive Saturday.

“The movement isn’t dead because Emmanuel Macron hasn’t brought an answer to our political demands,” said Francois Boulo, a lawyer and activist in Rouen, north-west of Paris. “He continues to give tax breaks to the rich and continues to push through reforms that hurt the unemployed.”

In late June, Macron’s government announced changes to the country’s unemployment insurance system that among other measures extends the period people have to work before being eligible. The changes are scheduled to take effect Nov. 1 and more is coming.

Clashes at Customs

On July 18, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe received a report recommending raising the effective age of retirement to 64 from 62, aligning public and private sector pensions and the government is aiming to legislate this year.

Every recent government has tried and failed on this one, in the face of a backlash from voters.

In the midst of this, Britain could tumble out of the European Union Oct. 31 without an accord and the customs officers who’d have to handle the disruption at French ports aren’t happy either.

They staged occasion strikes earlier this year to drive home the point that France, which handles 60% of the goods traded between the U.K. and continental Europe, isn’t prepared. After long truck lines at Calais and seriously disrupted Eurostar train travels, pay increases achieved a temporary truce but still aren’t satisfied with the government’s hiring plans.

“We are in a climate that’s very electric and politically tense,” Jerome Fourquet, Ifop’s head of opinion studies, said in a tweet.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Geraldine Amiel

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