Macron buses highlight new French president's mixed legacy

By DAVID KEYTON and THOMAS ADAMSON Markets Associated Press

They're dubbed the Macron buses, cheap long-distance rides across France that were among Emmanuel Macron's few notable achievements before his meteoric rise to the French presidency, part of his efforts to loosen up France's monopoly-bound transport sector and invigorate the country's economy.

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A ride on one such bus leaving on the A10 highway out of Paris shows how the president-elect might try to change France — and the challenges he may face after his inauguration on Sunday.

It's a national holiday — so most French businesses are closed and the streets are empty of the capital are empty. But this bus is an exception. Fully booked, it's heading to Orleans, Poitiers, all the way south to the famous wine region of Bordeaux.

Some on the bus are heading home after a weekend in Paris. Others were visiting family. All have one thing in common: a cheap ticket.

"I find it good. Competition brings down prices, we see it with Uber taxis nowadays," said Anthony Coste, a 24-year-old sales manager returning to live with his family in Bordeaux after three years in Paris.

"It should happen with more things too," he told The Associated Press. "Competition forces companies to make an effort."

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A train ticket to Bordeaux would have set him back more than 70 euros ($76) — his coach ticket with coach company Ouibus cost only 25 euros ($27).

Despite being new and unknown to the French public, Macron, then France's economy minister soon became a household name because of a controversial 2015 work reform law that bore his name. One of its most famous measures removed restrictions on new bus lines to increase competition and lower prices, nicknamed "transport for the poor."

The so-called "Macron Law," the 39-year-old's keystone achievement, has a mixed legacy. It aimed mainly to free up France's notoriously inflexible labor rules but was opposed by many on the left and provoked widespread protests.

Some 6.2 million people took Macron buses to get around in the year after the law, according to the National Federation of National Travelers. However, the law fell dramatically short of its goal to create 22,000 jobs, according to French media.

Megabus, one of the "Macron coach" companies, went bust in 2016. And some see such budget services as a symbol of the erosion of France's worker-friendly, regulated labor model.

"It represents this Uberization. We're willing to pay less and give up good service," said Pierre France, a 29-year-old researcher taking the bus to Poitiers.

"It's an economic choice that we make purely based on cost, because it's much cheaper, but without thinking about the long term consequences it could have," he added.

But he acknowledged the law has its benefits. A frequent traveler, he has encountered people from low-income communities on his bus trips who wouldn't have been able to travel at all otherwise.

One of the most noticeable — and most controversial — points of the Macron Law aimed to relax the strict rules that closed French stores on Sunday and in the evening, especially in tourist areas.

Macron's law has left an indelible mark on tourist spots all around France, from the Normandy seaside town of Deauville to the glitz of Paris' Champs-Elysees. In major department stores, an agreement was made with powerful workers' unions that gave employees perks for working on Sunday.

On the other side, pro-business conservatives argue the Macron law changes were too incremental, not fundamental.

Other than the labor law, in terms of Macron's political legacy, so far there's relatively little to go on, as the former banker has never held elected office and only worked a few years in the government.

His biggest impact on France has arguably been the ideological implosion of the French left.

Macron's centrist base pulled votes away from the center-left, leading to the Socialists tallying one their worst score in a presidential election since 1969. Compounding the problem for the Socialists, failed presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon drew a large chunk of those on the far left.

Back on the Ouibus, passengers used the long ride to rest or work. No one here is going to argue with a cheap ticket home.

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Keyton and Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamson_K and @davidkeyton

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Adamson reported from Paris.