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France

Eye on France: Emmanuel Macron's tough tasks for 2019

media French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he poses for a photograph after the recording of his New Year's speech at at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France December 31, 2018. Michel Euler/Pool via REUTERS

Things are not going well for French president Emmanuel Macron. According to an opinion poll published in today’s financial paper Les Echos, only 23 percent of voters believe that Macron has the capacity to fix France.

That’s the lowest confidence rating for the French leader since his election 18 months ago. And is one point lower than that of his little-loved predecessor, François Hollande, at the same stage of his mandate.

Crucially, for Les Echos, the percentage of voters who have “no confidence at all” in Emmanuel Macron has soared seven points to 51 percent.

The prime minister, Edouard Philippe, is going down the same tube, at roughly the same rate.

And, since no opposition group or individual in particular is profiting from the poor showing of the head of state, this is clearly personal. People don’t like Emmanuel Macron. His reform program is seen as unjust and inefficient; he does not understand the real problems of ordinary French people.

It's in the post!

Les Echos say the president will have to send out “extremely strong signals” if he’s to make any headway against the cohorts of doubters.

In fact, Emmanuel Macron is planning to send out a letter. The details are still unclear, but it appears that the presidential missive will be to check what everybody wants before the promised grand national debate, due to open next week, even if the agenda and the identities of the participants remain disconcertingly uncertain. Perhaps the letter will reveal all?

The presidential reform line up

Depending on which paper you read, the president faces three, four or six major challenges as 2019 gets under way. Not including the letter.

Les Echos goes for three: Macron has to reform the unemployment benefit system to encourage more people to get off the dole and back to gainful employment. He has to reform retirement pensions. And he has to get rid of a vast scrum of unnecessary and expensive civil servants.

Le Monde also goes for three, warning that dole reform is likely to prove explosive. The centrist paper continues in the same rhetorical vein, describing the struggle to cut state spending, which includes axing all those civil service jobs, as “the mother of all battles”.

Church and state reform - again?

Le Monde springs a surprise with presidential obligation number three, saying that Emmanuel Macron must reform the 1905 law which separates state and church. What they mean, of course, is state and mosque, since the terms of the old law do not cover foreign donations to religious institutions operating in France. And the police are worried that some Islamic centres could be using foreign money to finance terrorist operations.

Left-leaning Libération goes for four challenges, and they come up with four completely different presidential objectives to those chosen by either Les Echos or Le Monde.

President and the people on speaking terms

Libé says Macron must re-establish a “dialogue” with the electorate. Not that the French have ever been on chatty, first-name terms with the boss. But they’re fed up with being governed from on high, by a former merchant banker who likes to compare himself with a Roman god, and who talks fancy.

Libération’s second presidential challenge is the new French income tax collection system, which is supposed to come into operation this very month.

This, needless to say, has nothing at all to do with the current president, since the reform was actually passed under the Hollande government. Which won’t save Emmanuel Macron from paying cash if it doesn’t work.

The ordinary French person, clutching his and her thin yellow vest for protection against the harsh winds of winter, is well primed to react to any challenge to an already stressed purchasing power.

If the new tax collection machines get it wrong, even slightly and for ever so few, there’ll be blood on the streets. Even if there’s no technical problem, the fact that French earners will get a lot less in their pay packets at the end of the month could lead to war.

Keep reforming, we'll keep protesting

The president has to go on changing France, says Libé in third place.

That broad ambition includes saving four billion euros from the social security budget, something that the trade unions won’t swallow calmly. And pensions and public sector reform also come in for mention.

Libération’s final challenge comes in the form of the early summer European elections. Macron’s presidency has been solidly based on a European foundation. He needs a strong showing. And, ironically, the yellow vests may come to his aid by proposing their own candidates, thus eating away at support for either Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left France Unbowed.

2018 - to hell or a golden age?

Conservative daily Le Figaro is the most demanding, with six presidential tasks including revisting the common base of retirement, civil service reform and unemployment benefit. To this Le Figaro adds the debate on medically-assisted parenthood and the homosexual family, the reform of the 1905 church-state regulations, and the whole question of changing the French constitution, with inflammable debates anticipated on such key themes as reducing the number of deputies and senators, the introduction of some level of proportional representation in elections, and increasing the independence of the judiciary.

With that sort of agenda, and the letter to write, Emmanuel Macron may well look back on 2018 as the golden age of his presidency.

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