Paris limped into 2020 in the midst of a transport strike that had continued at varying levels of intensity for more than a month, interspersed with the odd day of general strike action to spice matters up. All of this is in response to the plan by French President Emmanuel Macron to reform state pensions for transport workers amongst others.
For a President and a government that prides itself on being cleverer than anybody else in France, or Europe for that matter, their handling of the pensions issue has been particularly tone deaf. The government already has a problem with their plans to change many of the employment terms and conditions for workers on SNCF, the national railway system. As if that were not bad enough, a report on the future of SNCF is also in the works and that will doubtless call for ‘reforms’ and this will inevitably lead to further labour disputes or as they are described in France “mouvement social.” All of this is a concern for the French government, but their belief was that with the first round of the next presidential elections due in April 2022 it is not as if they are dealing with an existential crisis. They hold to the conventional wisdom that it is not as if Macron and his La République En Marche!(LREM) party have any real political opposition to worry about.
The centre left is comatose, the extreme left is unelectable and the centre right has lost its way, and all that is left is Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National (RN). Macron beat Le Pen in 2017 and, barring something catastrophic, would expect to beat her in 2022 should history repeat itself. Unfortunately, polling is showing that Macron is becoming increasingly unpopular and, for the first time, might even be vulnerable in the next election. All French President’s become unpopular during their term of office, the key is to find a way to change people’s perception of the President. One way that this can be achieved is to generate a foreign policy triumph, or the perception of a triumph, it worked for Jacques Chirac in 2003 regarding Iraq. It would appear that Macron and his advisers believed that inserting Macron and France into the ongoing problems between the US and Iran offered fertile ground for a foreign policy success. France, like the other European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, was fully aware that this arrangement would not stop Iran becoming a nuclear power. What it hopefully would do was to postpone the need for Europe to do anything about Iranian nuclear capabilities for a considerable period of time, and by then perhaps something might have changed. Then the Trump administration pulled out the JCPOA and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. On the other side of the coin, Iran’s activist and adventurist foreign policy in the Middle East gathered pace raising tensions in that region. France believed that tensions could be reduced if Iran was granted sanctions relief and floated the idea of spending US$15Bn to end the burden of sanctions on Iran and re-open negotiations regarding JCPOA and other issues. Nobody was really interested. Iran then misread the Trump administration and sought to strengthen its position in Iraq, actions which eventually led to the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in early January. Tensions still remain high in the Middle East, although it appears that at this point both the US and Iran are exercising a commendable level of self-restraint. Sadly, for Macron and France, their ability to insert themselves into the Iran/JCPOA situation remains limited and perhaps this is fortunate because nobody can predict with certainty how events will unfold. As such the search for a foreign policy triumph to counteract the waning popularity of President Macron continues.
Author: David Saw