FACT CHECK: How well is the French economy really doing?

The French economy is a central issue in April's presidential election, with the government lauding strong growth and high employment, while President Emmanuel Macron's rivals cast him as 'president of the rich'.

The French Economy and Finance Ministry has spent huge amounts of money during the pandemic.
The French Economy and Finance Ministry has spent huge amounts of money during the pandemic. Has the strategy paid off? (Photo by Ludovic Marin / AFP)

In April Macron – a former Economy minister – will be defending his record in office, while his rivals will be on the attack. One thing’s for sure – an awful lot of statistics and graphs will be chucked around.

So how are things going?

Macron swept to power in 2017 presenting himself as a dynamic, young and liberalising reformer. 

He pledged to cut taxes and spending, streamline public services and reform the pension system. Macron got to work on this shortly after the election, notably by scrapping the ‘Solidarity tax’ on the country’s super-wealthy (Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune or ISF). He reformed the legal code to make it easier for employers to hire and fire and cut down the country’s swollen civil service.

But then the pandemic hit. 

The government created a massive package of economic aid for individuals and businesses, with the intention of keeping the economy afloat by supporting businesses and people forced to stop working during the pandemic.

In a televised address in March 2020, Macron said the government would protect workers, the health sector and businesses quoi qu’il en coute (whatever it costs).

Public spending shot up from €538 billion in 2019 (pre-pandemic), to €603 billion in 2020. Last year parliament approved a state budget of €634 billion and this year, the government is pushing to increase this to €883 billion. 

“Macronism has evolved from a liberal political philosophy to one which has a strong interventionist role for the state,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist at Sciences Po.

When he first took office, Macron’s economic policies had the effect of reducing public spending as a proportion of GDP – but the arrival of Covid sent it soaring to record levels. 

Public spending as a proportion of GDP (blue) has reached historic heights in France.

Public spending as a proportion of GDP (blue) has reached historic heights in France. Source: INSEE

Stéphanie Villers, an economist, said that the government had little choice but to intervene to save the economy when Covid hit. 

“It was an unprecedented event. It was almost a war-like situation,” she said. 

“Whole parts of the economic apparatus of France were quasi-nationalised. We had to intervene and were not the only country to do this. But we did spend a lot more than other countries and now have a massive public debt.” 

French public spending as a proportion of GDP stood at 61.6 percent in 2020, compared to 49.11 percent in the UK, 45.45 percent in the USA, 50.84 percent in Germany, 57.29 percent in Italy and 52.27 percent in Spain. 

So has Macron’s economic policy paid off? 

A cursory glance at some key economic indicators suggests that the French economy is doing well. 

Last month, the Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire heralded 7 percent economic growth in 2021 as “spectacular”. More than one million jobs have been created since 2017, unemployment is at its lowest level in nearly a decade and France now counts at least 26 unicorns – start-ups valued at more than $1 billion. 

“We saw that quoi qu’il en coute really worked,” said Villers. 

A study from the Institut des Politiques Publiques released in November 2021 found that under Macron’s presidency, purchasing power for the average French household increased by 1.6 percent. This means that the vast majority of people in France, apart from the poorest five percent, are now have more disposable income at the end of the month than before Macron was elected. 

Those earning less than €800 per month are around €40 worse off at the end of the year now than they were prior to 2017. The wealthiest households saw significantly greater gains in purchasing power under Macron than any other group. 

This graph shows that Macron's economic policy has greatly benefited the wealthiest households in France, while the poorest 5 percent have largely lost out.

This graph shows that Macron’s economic policy has greatly benefited the wealthiest households in France, while the poorest 5 percent have largely lost out. Source: IPP 

The most recent issue has been the post-pandemic increase in the cost of living – felt across the world as the price of raw materials and oil have soared.

The French government has made efforts to protect poorer households from increasing bills, introducing a chèque énergie to subsidise costs over Christmas and introducing a one-off indemnité inflation in 2021. More recently, it has temporarily frozen gas and electricity prices.

Although the distribution of economic gains under Emmanuel Macron has been unequal and led many opponents to dub him le Président des riches, Rouban argues that the French Left is now in difficult territory. 

“The Government has intervened massively in the economy and put the Left in an uncomfortable situation,” he said. “It doesn’t have an argument anymore.”

“They will contest the government much more on cultural grounds, drawing on ideas like woke-isme than on the economic question.” 

How long can quoi qu’il en coute last?

French public debt is rising and now stands at 116 percent of GDP. The public deficit stood at €171 billion in 2021 – which means the government is spending €171 billion more than it is receiving in revenue (through taxes, for example). 

Although many of pandemic-related economic aid packages have now ended, the government is still offering support to certain hard-hit sectors like the tourism industry.

“Even prior to Covid, the public deficit was a real Achilles heel of the economy. And financing of the quoi qu’il en coute programme has seen out public debt explode,” said Villers. 

Public debt as a proportion of GDP has spiked since the start of the pandemic in 2019.

Public debt as a proportion of GDP has spiked since the start of the pandemic in 2019. Source: INSEE

Unless France reduces its enormous public deficit, it may struggle to receive financing from lending institutions, like the European Central Bank. This would make it extremely difficult for the state to pay for public services like schools and hospitals – let alone welfare payments. 

“No one wants to lend you money if you do n’importe quoi with your money,” said Villers. 

None of the main presidential candidates running in April’s contest have seriously argued about cutting back public spending – except Valérie Pécresse of the centre-right Les Républicains. 

Pécresse, who describes herself as two thirds Merkel and one third Thatcher, has denounced the “open bar of public spending” and vowed cut 10 percent of public administration jobs as part of her effort to remedy the situation.

Inflation currently stands at 2.9 percent higher than it was one year ago. It remains to be seen whether the Pécresse plan to cut public spending as poorer segments of the populations are feeling the squeeze could be a vote winner.

Member comments

  1. I stopped reading at: “Macronism has evolved from a liberal political philosophy to one which has a strong interventionist role for the state,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist at Sciences Po.”

    What bosh that there’s been a fundamental change in Macron’s rabid liberalism, and journalists should know better.

    The French model won’t crash – just like in 2008 and every other modern shock it weathers the storm better than the UK, US, Germany, etc. Check your history. Paul Krugman of the NY Times just wrote, in fact, that the French are winning the pandemic recovery for the same reason – the French model is based in part on resiliency to shocks over wild growth rates.

    Forget the OECD and the comment below.

    1. The only shock absorber in the French model is borrowed money and it’s running out – hence Macron trying to get the EU’s budget deficit rules loosened. A soft German Govt might help him out but ultimately the French economy is heading for the cliff-edge.

      1. Don’t you get fed up of being wrong?

        All you want to do is knock anything that shows the French doing well, makes me wonder why you bother commenting on a French site, surely you’d be happier on the daily mail or torygraph sites.

          1. You are correct, what was I thinking, a brexiter knocking the EU, shame he doesn’t stick to the torygraph still it does amuse to watch them grasping at straws.

        1. But I’m not wrong. I just made a coherent comment based on what the article and the OECD have said. Macron himself has said it’s an objective of French presidency of the EU to slacken the budget deficit rules. Why do you think he needs to do that ?

  2. The policy of intervening in the economy when the private sector fails or can’t handle it is a good one that stands to France, other European and International countries can afford to adopt such a policy instead of relying so much on the global markets.

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France proposes getting rid of penalties for ‘minor’ speeding offences

The French government is considering changing speeding laws so that drivers will not lose points on their licence if they are caught going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

France proposes getting rid of penalties for 'minor' speeding offences

France’s Interior Ministry is considering changing its current rules for minor speeding violations – proposing getting rid of the penalty for drivers who only violate the rule by going just a few kilometres over the speed limit.

The Ministry has not laid out a timeline for when this could come into effect, but they said they are currently in the preliminary stages of studying how the change could be carried out.

“The fine of course remains,” said the Interior Ministry to French daily Le Parisien.

That is to say you can still be fined for going five kilometres over the speed limit, but there might not be any more lost points for driving a couple kilometres over the posted limit. 

READ ALSO These are the offences that can cost you points on your driving licence

Of the 13 million speeding tickets issued each year in France, 58 percent are for speeding violations of less than 5 km per hour over the limit, with many coming from automated radar machines.

How does the current rule work?

The rule itself is already a bit flexible, depending on where the speeding violation occurs.

If the violation happens in an urban area or low-speed zone (under 50 km per hour limit), then it is considered a 4th class offence, which involves a fixed fine of €135. Drivers can also lose a point on their licences as a penalty for this offence. 

Whereas, on highways and high-speed roads, the consequences of speeding by 5 km per hour are less severe. The offence is only considered 3rd class, which means the fixed fine is €68. There is still the possibility of losing a point on your licence, however. 

How do people feel about this?

Pierre Chasseray, a representative from the organisation “40 Millions d’Automobilistes,” thinks the government should do away with all penalties for minor speeding offences, including fines. He told French daily Le Parisien that this is only a “first step.”

Meanwhile, others are concerned that the move to get rid of points-deductions could end up encouraging people to speed, as they’ll think there is no longer any consequence.

To avoid being accused of carelessness, France’s Interior Ministry is also promising to become “firmer” with regards to people who use other people’s licences in order to get out of losing points – say by sending their spouse’s or grandmother’s instead of their own after being caught speeding. The Interior Ministry plans to digitalise license and registration in an effort to combat this. 

Ultimately, if you are worried about running out of points on your licence, there are still ways to recover them.

You can recover your points after six months of driving without committing any other offences, and there are also awareness training courses that allow you to gain your points back. It should be noted, however, that these trainings typically cost between €150 and €250, and they do not allow you to regain more than four points.