Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe where he served as Paris correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
French commuters who hit the road late this morning after the long Easter weekend found themselves facing more than 400 kilometers of traffic jams – and that was just in the Paris region, according to local media.
Just one of eight TGV long-distance trains was running. And on the commuter rails, there was even greater paralysis.
France is in the grip, this time on the rails, of one of its periodic mass strikes – labor protests that have proved to be among the leading forces undoing any number of French Presidents in the past.
And indeed, labor and the efforts at reform by France’s 40-year-old French President, Emmanuel Macron – now approaching an end to his first year of an otherwise all-but-Teflon presidency – could be his one Achilles heel.
The unions have promised their actions will continue on and off through the end of June, blocking service for two days in every five.
“A tussle is engaged, between the railway workers and the government,” said the leading French daily, Le Monde, which has largely supported Macron up until this point. “This event is of paramount importance for the President of the Republic. The rest of Emmanuel Macron’s five years will be played out through this movement.”
Indeed, Macron was elected on a platform, one of whose keystone planks was an end to what he called “blockages”– ancestral union rules and regulations installed over the course of decades by a succession of French Presidents, anxious to keep strikers on the job and away from the streets in protest.
He also hoped to reform France’s state-owned rail system, even potentially removing it from government control and offering it for sale to private investors.
France’s railway workers want none of this.
So far, Macron has managed to edge gingerly closer to his goal of prying French commerce and industry out from under the boot heels of all but lifetime-guaranteed employment and a host of other regulations.
Last year, Macron managed to get the National Assembly, which he controls with an absolute majority, to pass a law that makes it easier for private companies to hire and fire workers. But until now, he has not truly taken on the power public monopolies, telling rail workers simply that they needed to come to grips with the reality that “the world is simply not like it was before.”
For many French voters, that has been a popular reform. But not so for the unions, who do still have some power left – albeit far from the power they had in past decades, when a general strike could paralyze the entire nation.
For the time being, Macron still manages to hold on to his overwhelming popularity at home.
Indeed, the chief spokesman for Macron’s political party, La République en Marche, Gabriel Attal, played to many French voters who are fed up with the periodic strikes that have regularly made life so tedious.
“We need to rid this country of its strike culture,” Attal observed on Monday.
The latest polls suggest as much. The respected Ifop poll published Sunday showed that a majority of French voters believed that the strikes were unjustified.
Indeed, his determination and success are central not only to his standing at home – and a successful four years that remain in his term – but to his even broader goal of polishing France’s image abroad as the new strongman of Europe.
With Angela Merkel in Germany fighting for her political survival seeking to hold together a tenuous coalition, Italy with little government at all, Spain spinning apart centrifugally as Catalonia seeks to exit the country, and Britain on the verge of catapulting itself away from the Continent under Brexit, while Trump’s America makes threatening noises on trade, defense and Iran, and Vladimir Putin threatens return of decidedly cold war, Macron needs to hold his year-old presidency together.
Macron has been pressing to find some compromise that will work to hold together the Iran arms deal that Trump has vowed to torpedo.
In Brussels last month, Macron took the lead in standing up for Europe against the tariff threats Trump has lobbed regularly in recent days. “We will discuss nothing, as a matter of principle, with a gun pointed at our head,” the French President said menacingly.
Such threats work well when the leader launching them has the support of his voters and is clearly in charge in his country. With Macron due to make a state visit to the White House in three weeks, it is essential that the French leader has his own economy and society very much in hand.
Doubtless, French unionists, who could have staged such an action at any time in the past year, understand the nature of the hand they may now be holding – at least as strong as they may ever be able to muster.
Macron must find a way past these actions. Europe needs a leader and a nation willing and above all able to take on a role that few Western leaders seem to be in any position to assume.