Martine Aubry

By Lawday, David | New Statesman (1996), February 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

Martine Aubry


Lawday, David, New Statesman (1996)


She brought the 35-hour week to France, a reform of global reach. But is she a visionary or a bully?

If you want to get on the wrong side of Martine Aubry, which is a mistake, ask her how far she owes her position of power in France to being her father's daughter. "He's him, I'm me," she'll say, looking you hard in the eye, without in the least seeking to detract from the importance of her father.

Indeed, the question is about as malapropos as she makes it sound. A woman who shakes the industrial world by single-handedly imposing the 35-hour week on a doubting France plainly needs no help from Dad, even though he is Jacques Delors, the master-builder of Europe who famously reduced aggrieved Sun headline-writers to smutty schoolboy doggerel.

What a reform hers is. Bold, utterly controversial and potentially of global reach. "The social building site of the year 2000," she calls it, not unreasonably. As it came into force in final form this month, one sensed that no one else in France could have pulled it off. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin' s left-wing government wanted it, but it was Aubry's unstoppable will that made it happen. At the head of her gargantuan social affairs ministry, officially named Employment and Solidarity, this Joan of Work is the spine of a government whose popularity may propel Jospin to the French presidency in a year or so. And then what will become of her? She is, I can divulge, working on it.

Devotees of Tony Blair's market liberalism might prefer to bum her at the stake, for she is not one to bow low before the market. She stands at Jospin's shoulder raising her eyebrows high at the Third Way. In spirit, her reform certainly runs counter to the kind of economic changes Blair is insisting on. Self-assured, courageous, tart-tongued, driven, "Steamroller" to her staff: such a woman is bound to make enemies. The general run of French employers, though not necessarily the major ones, hate her.

Let her try turning on her dark-eyed, bob-haired Basque-ish charm (inherited from her mother, a pure Basque) and they still hate her. She is said to have a flirtatious eye, but this must be a private side. Her very name arouses crimson-faced jeers at bosses' assemblies. Even her own Socialist Party colleagues are divided about her. "I try to lunch with her as often as possible," a former Socialist minister has noted. "For a couple of hours, I know she won't be running me down." Many find her a bully. She works her staff to a frazzle. One wouldn't want to say anything less than unchallengeably bright at her table, for she does not like to be contradicted. Her manner says: "I listen. I decide. That's it."

She has come to incarnate the left pole of the essentially pragmatic Jospin government, ranged against a right pole represented until recently by the masterful, easygoing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was forced to resign as finance minister over a little matter of shady invoicing. Personal rivalry destroyed their relationship. Now that her nemesis has gone, the left pole stands supreme. But this is something of a fiction. She is no more hard left than Jospin is. However, she is not at ease in the Socialist Party, largely because she hasn't created a dependable party following.

As a child, Aubry heard union bigwigs and labour experts putting the world to rights in the family kitchen. Later, straight out of France's elite ENA school for future leaders of the state, she entered the ministry of labour rather than a more glamorous post that was hers for the taking. She consumed policy dossiers for breakfast. In time, she was elevated to labour minister under an admiring President Francois Mitterrand, and when the left lost power in parliament, she did a spell in industry as a top executive of the French chemical giant Pechiney. Jospin's election at the head of a left-wing coalition in 1997 pitched her back into the top flight of government.

All that ministerial power, then, and no political base. …

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