The French government on Wednesday stepped up mandatory requisition of refinery workers, three weeks into a strike that has created fuel shortages and long queues at petrol stations, and one day after striking transport workers disrupted train and bus traffic.
Tens of thousands of French people participated in protest marches against the high cost of living, climate inaction and the perceived violation of the right to strike on October 16th and 18th.
Strikes and demonstrations have long been a feature of autumn in Paris. They have not reached a critical mass yet, but there is an uneasy sense of anticipation, a fear that simmering discontent could spiral into violence comparable to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) riots four years ago.
Since President Emmanuel Macron lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly last June, “an impression of indecision reigns” in the executive, writes Nicolas Beytout, editor of L’Opinion newspaper.
The left has made its presence felt in the assembly as well as in the streets, by adopting a policy of systematic obstruction.
Ten days of heated debates over the 2023 budget barely began to examine more than 3,400 proposed amendments. Prime minister Elisabeth Borne on Wednesday invoked article 49.3 of the constitution to pass the budget without a vote.
Some of Macron’s allies in his centrist Renaissance coalition broke ranks during budget debates. The MoDem group demanded higher taxes on “super-dividends” paid by energy companies this year.
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Finance minister Bruno Le Maire rejected the idea, saying it would threaten the coherence of Macron’s economic and fiscal policy which is based on lower taxes, making France more attractive to investors and better rewarding work.
Income inequality is also a major issue. While his employees disrupt fuel distribution, Patrick Pouyanné, the chief executive of TotalEnergies, has defended his €6 million salary by arguing that he is paid less than the heads of other large corporations.
Eric Sellini of the Communist trade union CGT says striking refinery workers “are the voice of those who suffer from the fact that salaries do not keep up with inflation and who see winter coming with the price of food and energy rising.”
Macron appears set to resort repeatedly to the use of article 49.3 to pass legislation. A Bill on social security is likely to follow the passage of the budget. Eric Coquerel, the head of the finance committee and a member of the far-left France Insoumise (LFI) party, addressed prime minister Borne in the assembly, saying “I solemnly ask you not to have recourse to this authoritarian article. It is the mark of a regime in crisis.”
Macron will argue that an irresponsible opposition is preventing him from reforming the country, and that he has no choice but to invoke article 49.3. For the moment, the French president is silent about his intention to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. Pension reform is the explosive issue which could ignite widespread unrest.
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The left has been divided by accusations of violence — both physical and psychological — by deputies against women. LFI deputy Adrien Quatennens admitted to having slapped his wife, twisted her wrist and injured her elbow. The couple are divorcing. He has not attended parliament since she filed a suit against him last month.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of LFI, angered many female supporters by denouncing the “lynching” of Quatennens and saying that the young politician, whom he has called his son, “is not violent because he was violent one time”.
Julien Bayou, a deputy for the Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV) party which is part of Mélenchon’s Nupes coalition, stepped down from the party leadership after he was accused of “toxic behaviour” towards his former partner by another EELV deputy, Sandrine Rousseau. Bayou says he is the victim of a Kafkaesque process in which he cannot defend himself against vague accusations and compares Rousseau’s activities to the 1950s witch-hunt against Communists in the US by Senator Joe McCarthy.
Rousseau, an “eco-feminist” whom many see as a man-hater, has also clashed with the Communist leader Fabien Roussel, who ridiculed her for saying that eating barbecued steak was a “symbol of virility”.
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The charismatic Roussel says the left is meant to defend workers and that he wants “to restore the meaning of work, the happiness of those who go to work”. He proposes reducing unemployment benefits so that labour can be better remunerated. The idea created a scandal on the left.
While attention focuses on squabbles within and between the government, trade unions and leftists, Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National, which holds a record number of 89 far right seats in the assembly, are quietly building an image of respectability.
Le Pen hopes to follow the example of far-right parties in Italy and Sweden who have entered government in coalition with traditional, establishment conservatives.