We stop in Aix-en-Provence for cheap diesel. There’s a Total garage just off the motorway which can save us 10€ on a tank full. The boss of the company was in the town on the same day, for Aix’s annual economic conference of France’s company chiefs and their academic hangers on. It’s when they set out how much they are looking to the government in Paris to save them in terms of taxes, a sort of mini Davos without the gnomes.
Patrick Pouyanné, the Total Chair, was happy to let everyone hear how President Macron’s new government should be responding to the needs of business. Macron had sent his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and his finance minister Bruno le Maire to offer the menu of austerity for the masses and reductions in what is termed “The Solidarity Tax on Fortunes” or ISF.
We were after the diesel not so we could sit at Pouyanné’s feet in The Economic Encounters of Aix as they are called, but to go on to Avignon for the Festival. We wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth about the other side of the globalisation coin, about the struggle of a small group of employees at one of the big multinationals favoured by Macron but who refused to accept that their work be spirited away to suit the profits of their bosses.
You’ll see their brand label, 1336 (pictured), on a growing number of supermarket shelves around France. It’s the number of days they had to occupy their Fralib plant at Gémenos just outside Marseilles in order to stop its closure and establish a workers’ cooperative.
Unilever – the beast concerned in the Fralib affair – is destroying other jobs elsewhere (the terminology now is ‘lowering the headcount’) as it tries to ward off a take-over by that even bigger beast Kraft Heinz, the nice folks who gobbled up Cadbury a while back. The headcount in the coop is only 42, but it is at least alive and kicking. If you want to help it kick harder, go to http://fraliberthe.fr and you’ll find how to order some of their teas.
“We haven’t caused capitalism to collapse and not all the cards are in our hands,” quipped Olivier Leberquier, the coop’s director when promoting a solo show by the actor Philippe Durand based on interviews he conducted with the Fralib workers. Durand has edited down their words to draw out the humanity that constantly seeks a place on the shop floor. His is not one of the great, sprawling, expensive shows that fill the festival calendar, but it tells a stronger story. “To be free is difficult,” he quotes one worker at the end who gave his version of the La Fontaine fable of the well-fed dog with his chain and the hungry wolf who preferred his liberty.
The “Fralib” remembered how they had been accused of “growling like a pack of wolves” by the company lawyers. Growling is being heard increasingly as the nastiness of Macron’s programme bites. Who is going to help this kind of counter movement gather strength in defence of the French people’s economic, social and democratic rights?
Will it be the traditional right of De Gaulle, Nicolas Sarkozy and the miserable François Fillon? Unlikely, given the way Macron is stealing their policy clothes and has collared some of their more dynamic figures to be ministers in his government.
Or perhaps the far, racist right of Marine Le Pen and her Front National? She scored a frighteningly high percentage in the presidential election but is left floundering in the absence (thankfully) of any clear way forward to an electoral majority.
Or will it be the left, currently in three pieces: the Communists, once the dominant electoral force on the left but now a fragment of their former selves; Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, the rising stars of the past year; or the remains of the Socialist Party, just five years ago with a majority at every important level in French electoral politics but now in tatters, about to abandon its prestige Paris centre HQ and whose presidential candidate Benoît Hamon has jumped ship?
All three factions will be spending much of the summer and autumn debating their future, how they should organise internally, what they think of each other and, above all, how they can roll back the very different populisms of Macron and Le Pen. Their discussions will offer a strong echo of that debate in Britain around the moment when Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979, the debate launched by Eric Hobsbawm’s The Forward March of Labour Halted.
It was not so much Thatcher’s first election victory that Hobsbawm was thinking of, but the earlier turning point of the late 40s and early 50s after the immediate post-war reforms. Were he still around to pronounce on matters French, he might consider the halt in France came in the early 80s when President François Mitterrand dumped the left programme on which he had been elected, successfully shafted the Communist Party and reduced French politics to a succession of increasingly failed right or left of centre governments, the “alternance” as the French came to call it.
That halted system of politics came crashing down with President Hollande, giving Macron his chance to combine public fears over Le Pen with a glitzy presentation of a supposedly progressive reform programme that is a cynical cover for a drive to dismantle the French public sector and welfare state, currently one of the great exceptions in this globalised world.
It is not surprising that Macron wants to appear “Jupiterien”, a grand god above the petty fray of mere mortals. As I am typing this piece, the French equivalent of BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a long investigation of the murky background to the funding of Sarkozy’s election campaigns: bodies in the Danube, millions flying here and there in cash-filled suitcases, Ministers caught fiddling, former Gadaafi regime figures in hiding, police tape recordings of Sarkozy’s mates . . .
The corruption of the French establishment beats any Hollywood fiction hollow.
Macron has not escaped it. His allies, the centrist party MODEM, are staring into a political abyss, caught out by the way they have abused European Parliament funding in the past. Some of his closest colleagues in his own movement En Marche or in his government are trapped in their own scandals. He himself faces at least some embarrassment over how he and his advisers used their positions when he was Economy Minister until just a year ago to get his presidential campaign off the ground.
So Jupiter it has to be. The media is held at a distance, his La République En Marche MPs are kept on a tight rein and the biggest reform programme in France since the 80s is being rolled out at a speed and across a breadth of issues that he hopes will stun and immobilise his opponents, like bolts of lightning from the summit of Olympus.
He knows full well that there will be resistance as the glitz comes off and the cuts bite. Don’t be fooled by the boyish smirk on his face as he sat with Trump watching the Daft Punk rendition by a French military band on July 14 performing dance steps as off the wall as anything dreamed up by John Cleese. Macron may wear a mock frown when he tries to look like Jupiter, but he is schooled in the brutal, power-hungry world of high finance and knows how to skewer his enemies quickly and terminally.
The military Commander-in-Chief, General Pierre Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, who told a parliamentary commission that he was not going to let himself be “baiser” – literally “fucked” – by Macron into accepting a standstill budget, was dismissed within 48 hours, the time it took the President to ensure he had a successor who would keep his mouth suitably shut.
Macron did not object to the military’s desire for more cash (they will be the only ones to get more under his future spending plans, he pointed out) but to the general’s attempt to oppose him in public.
“I am your chief,” the President declared. “I do not need either pressure or commentaries”. During a mind-numbingly dull 90-minute address to both houses of the French parliament at the start of the month he had told the media not to poke around too much into the affairs of his ministers. The rules for his En Marche movement have now been published and they are those of a fan club where it is the star who runs the show, not the supporters.
But rights, the CGT union leader Philippe Martinez pointed out, are not privileges. And rights are at the heart of the French vision of themselves, at how they engage with society, with their employer, their state and with their culture. Macron’s desire to replace the rights of citizens with the machinations of the market and greater privileges for the rich, cuts deep into that spirit.
The politics at Avignon were therefore sometimes bitter. As a quote from Bertolt Brecht in one show has it: “Art is not a mirror that reflects reality but a hammer that fashions it.” Durand’s subtle and downbeat delivery of his text was hardly a hammer, but, by giving dignity to those spurned by the captains of capital, it helps fashion the alternative the French left needs quickly to discover.
Slightly more mainstream perhaps was a comment from the Festival’s founder, the great French theatre director Jean Villar. It’s on the wall in the centre at Avignon celebrating his work and that of the Festival: “The People’s National Theatre is a public service. Just like water, gas and electricity.”
We know too well what Thatcher did to them. It’s what Macron wants to do to the world in which Durand finds his freedom of speech and the workers at the coop can hope to turn the tables on Unilever. We did not sit at the feet of Pouyanné, the boss of the world’s fourth largest oil company, Bruno le Maire did, declaring he had “heard the message of Aix-en-Provence” that “the state has to create the most propitious environment possible” for business to develop. Others will prefer the message of Avignon.