Imperial throne of Napoleon 1st.

The king of gods and humans: the shadow of constitutional monarchy and labour strikes in France

French workers from various industries are on strike, along with sit-ins by university students. These major actions include the railway, Air France, garbage collection, and electricity delivery. Some students have joined in, occupying university grounds. The particular reasons for the strikes are myriad though they share the common ground of opposition to the government’s plans for the future of the political economy, the nature of what is deemed a common good versus a private profit, as well as the general and particular conditions of work and employment. They’re also a clash between opposing ethos, ideologies, and visions for society.

One of the affected sectors is that of the railway. The country’s commuter trains and associated network are run by a state owned enterprise, the SNCF. The government of president Emmanuel Macron plans to change labour and compensation conditions for the enterprise, and has said that they wish to introduce international competition into the system by inviting private investment. The latter plan is not fully spelled out, yet the outlines are clear enough: sell off stakes in profit-making stations, sections of the rail network, and trains on certain commuter routes on a case by case basis that would fracture the collective enterprise into a multitude of competing investment opportunities broken up between each geographic location and the categories of route, network, and station. The degree to which private shares would be limited in each is not clear: for example, would the government cap private ownership below 50% or permit private control of assets? Macron thus far promises to retain the state’s controlling stake yet this may simply be a transitory procedure or simply an unfounded promise. No legally binding contract has yet been offered on this point. Words of promise are it.

This approach is in keeping with the particular method used to put forward the proposal. The president has made relevant changes to labour laws by decree in the past, and threatens to do the same this time around. This would avoid a parliamentary vote on the subject. A presidential decree means that the president decides the details and outcome without the regular participation of the legislative body of the parliament.

Despite the government’s parliamentary majority, to avoid a vote that they are yet very likely to win has some particular effects. It subverts the authority of the parliament, positing and normalising the office of the president as an executive who can tap into the tradition of rule by decree, a practice that’s rooted in royal government, assuming the powers of a constitutional monarch in the hands of an elected president rather than a hereditary monarch. This slide toward an elected monarch erodes even the already limited authority of a representative parliamentary system and expands that of the president as the individual that’s authorised to make and execute decisions of wide national interest, whether the parliament or majority of the public agrees or not.

To avoid a parliamentary vote can also limit the scope and possibility of visible debate, reducing its impact on public opinion. This can also serve to make it appear that responsibility for the decision is limited to that of the individual, in this case Macron. The wide array of elected officials, and non-elected individuals and organisations involved in the plan can then later duck such responsibility and point the finger at the executive’s decree while in effect planning for and supporting it. In the case that the continued development of the political line that includes the planned changes to the SNCF and other sectors is best served by superficially distancing itself from the decision, damage can be contained and power of the political  groups involved maintained while blame is placed on the president as an individual person who ruled by decree. Then, related and similar policies can continue while the president can simply be replaced in a follow-up election.

Step by step, president after president, the related policies can continue to be enacted by executive decree, parliamentary legislative rule, or via the (re)-interpretation of existing laws under new policy directives: whatever works best to carry the day. This is a simple and potentially effective tactic for advancing a group’s political ideology, economic framework, and desired models of society.

The president is nicely set up as a potential fall guy thanks to the particular approach taken by him and his office. He has been associated with Jupiter and styles his character of governance as “Jupiterian” in contrast to what he has criticised as just a “normal” president. His critical mention of a merely “normal” president was an attack against the publicly ill-regarded previous president of France: François Hollande. Plainly put, this self-reference is a claim on the identity of the king of gods, naming him after the master of the ancient Roman religious pantheon. Rule by decree is just an extension of such an image, empowering the office of the president as that of the king of humans: a comparatively modest role for a would-be god-president.

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