A former finance minister under a socialist government, who later founded a neoliberal party in his own image, described how to create a market society: ‘Do not try to advance one step at a time. Define your objectives clearly and move towards them by quantum leaps. Otherwise the interest groups will have time to mobilise and drag you down. Speed is essential: it is impossible to go too fast. Even at maximum speed, the total programme will take some years to implement. Don’t stop until you have completed the programme. Opponents’ fire is much less accurate if they have to shoot at a rapidly moving target. Go as fast as you can.’ This was not Emmanuel Macron, but Roger Douglas in New Zealand in November 1989, explaining the recent neoliberal counter-revolution in his country (1).
Nearly 30 years later, President Macron has adopted all the tricks of this shock strategy. Everywhere – the SNCF (the national rail company), the civil service, hospitals, schools, labour legislation, capital taxation, immigration, public broadcasting (which Macron has called ‘a national shame’) – ‘reform’ is going full steam ahead on the pretext of impending catastrophe or soaring debt.
A report on France’s railways, which Macron commissioned from a like-minded expert, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, has revived the as yet unfulfilled neoliberal wish list: ending the privileged status of railway workers, converting the SNCF to a PLC, closing loss-making lines. Five days after its publication, the government began ‘negotiations’ in an attempt to disguise the diktat it wanted to impose on the unions. It urgently needs to take advantage of the climate of political detente, divisions among the unions, and passenger frustration over delays, accidents, dilapidated track and high ticket prices. This is the ‘urgency of action’ claimed by the transport minister. As Roger Douglas stressed, when the opportunity arises, ‘it is impossible to go too fast.’
The French government is also counting on the media to produce fake official news and come up with catchphrases that will help its plans. The idea (quickly spread) that ‘the SNCF costs every French citizen €1,000, even if they don’t use the railways’ closely resembles the infamous claim that ‘every French person will have to pay €735 to wipe out Greece’s debt’, which in 2015 helped the EU to establish its financial stranglehold on Greece.
Sometimes the truth emerges, but too late. Some pensions ‘reforms’ have been justified on the grounds that average life expectancy is rising, but a recent government study concludes that ‘for those born in 1951 or later,’ 80% of France’s population, ‘average life expectancy after retirement is set to fall a little as compared with those born in 1950’ (2). A long trend of growing time spent in retirement has just been reversed. We have not heard much about this. And Macron is not about to warn us that urgent action is required on this front.
(1) See Serge Halimi, Le Grand Bond en arrière: Comment l’ordre libéral s’est imposé au monde, (The Great Leap Backwards: how the neoliberal order imposed itself on the world), Agone, Marseille, 2012 (first published 2004).
(2) Average retirement age has risen by 1 year and 4 months since 2010), Etudes et Résultats, no 1052, Direction de la Recherche, des Etudes, de l’Evaluation et des Statistiques, French Ministry of Health and Solidarity, Paris, February 2018.