Labor Strikes And Hurricane Relief, Macron's Longest Day

Protesters in Marseille on Tuesday
Protesters in Marseille on Tuesday


The honeymoon is definitely over. Just four months after he was elected to lead France, Emmanuel Macron faced his first major nationwide protest Tuesday against major labor reform plans that are seen as the central pillar of his presidency. Tens of thousands of workers have gone on strike for the day, causing some travel disruption in public transport (and, it would seem, to people willing to visit the Eiffel Tower).

But the protest, led by the country's second-largest union, the leftist CGT, is unlikely to make the new president and his government yield. Macron believes he can prevail, in part since his plans had been spelled out clearly to voters before last spring's elections. Through 36 measures that are being fast-tracked and will bypass Parliament, Macron is determined to go faster and further than any of his recent predecessors have done to liberalize France's labor code and attempt to bring down a stubbornly high unemployment rate that continues to hover near 10%.

On the tactical front, the French president has also cleverly maneuvered to "nip the emergence of a united trade-union front in the bud," to quote a headline from Le Monde. It is also notable that Macron was far from Paris on Tuesday, having headed for the French half of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, where widespread looting and violence have brought civil-war like scenes after the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.

Whether the trip was timed to avoid the protests back home or simply Mother Nature dictating the presidential calendar, Macron's absence could serve to reinforce a growing sentiment of an out-of-touch and sometimes arrogant leader. His approval rating plummeted in an unprecedented fashion over the summer, while a speech last week in Athens, in which he branded workers opposed to his labor reform as "slackers," has further dented his image.

But Guillaume Tabard, writing in Le Figaro, wonders whether Macron is playing the long game — and baiting his most rigid opponents. The "slacker" remark attracted strong responses from veteran opponents on the far left, whom the 39-year-old President, a newcomer, considers as "discredited ... survivors of the "ancient world"." Macron's "gamble", Tabard explains, is that whenever he will face such bursts of leftist criticism, a majority of public opinion will side with him by default.

For the moment, Macron's vantage point of today's labor protests from storm-battered St. Martin is a ready-made metaphor: Are strikes in France just part of the weather? Or is it a problem that can be fixed?

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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