OPINION: Macron has woken up the French economy, but will voters thank him?

The latest economic data coming out of France is very positive, but a cost-of-living crisis could yet cost Emmanuel Macron dearly at the ballot box, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron has woken up the French economy, but will voters thank him?
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech. Photo by Jean-Francois Badias / POOL / AFP

Almost unnoticed in these worrying times, France has had some good news. 

France, on the whole, prefers bad news. If the country’s economic figures had just taken a turn for the worse the 24-hour news channels would have been groaningly full of them – Ukraine or no Ukraine.

But look…

The official unemployment rate in France, despite the worst health crisis for a century, fell to 7.4 percent in December, the lowest in 13 years. Youth unemployment fell to just under 16 percent, the lowest level for three decades.

France’s recovery from two years of Covid lockdowns and curfews has been exemplary. The economy grew by 7 percent in 2021, the second best performance amongst large industrial nations.

These are all excellent talking points for President Emmanuel Macron as he finally steps aside from saving the world (next week probably) and starts his campaign to hold on to the Elysée Palace.

But there are also dark, economic clouds gathering. The  confrontation with Russia over Ukraine will make them even darker before the first round of voting on April 10th.

The pump price of petrol and diesel is now 20 centimes a litre higher than it was before the Gilets Jaunes revolt started in autumn 2018. Crude oil prices will soon pass $100 a barrel.  Food prices are spiralling. Wages for the low and middling paid have not shifted much for over a year.

The wholesale price of gas (30 percent of which comes from Russia) will continue to soar but will have no immediate effect in France because the government has pegged retail prices until June.

Emmanuel Macron’s failed attempts to woo and warn Vladimir Putin will not, in themselves, cost him many votes. Perhaps none.

Several of his opponents – Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – are deeply compromised by their previous Putin-idolatory. They accuse Macron of both freelancing and being Washington’s puppet; of doing too much but not quickly enough.

Some criticism of Macron may be justified. He was right to attempt to prevent a war. But he was too optimistic about his chances and too ready to take Vladimir Putin at his word.

I expect that none of that will do Macron much harm. The gathering cost-of-living crisis, worsened by western sanctions and the Russian response to them, should  worry him far more.

First,  however, lets first do something very unFrench and give Macron economic credit where it is due.

Almost two years ago, during the first Covid lockdown, I compared the French economy to the enchanted castle in the story of Sleeping Beauty. For how long, I asked, can you place a complex society like France into an artificial coma and expect businesses, jobs and investment to spring back into life like the people, horses and dogs in Charles Perrault’s fairy tale: “La Belle au bois dormant”?

As the final Covid restrictions are lifted (we hope) in the next few weeks, we know the answer. Emmanuel Macron and his finance minister Bruno Le Maire deserve enormous credit for their “whatever-it-costs” support for businesses and individuals in the last 23 months.

There will be an enormous bill to pay, eventually, in increased debt. But the short and long term price of a smaller or weaker safety net would have been greater. Ask the Germans

Britain, which copied some aspects of the French support programme, has higher growth than France last year but a much bigger recession in 2020. Taking the two years together, France did better.

The American economist Paul Krugman recently declared that that France was the “star” economic performer among large industrial nations in the last two years.

The latest, low unemployment figures reflect – in part – Macron’s and Le Maire’s success in putting the French economy on life support in 2020 and removing the feeding tubes skilfully in 2021.

They also reflect the success of earlier Macron reforms to ease pay-roll taxes and make hiring and firing easier. Most of all, France finally has a decent apprenticeship system which is taking hundreds of thousands of young people off the dole and starting them in worthwhile and productive trades and careers.

New rules and incentives introduced under Macron mean that apprenticeships – long a French weakness – have doubled from 318,000 a year in 2018 to 718,000 last year. All but a handful are in the private sector.

Full disclosure: some other recent economic statistics are poor. Apart from increases in public deficits and accumulated debt, the country’s trade deficit is worrying. The economic recovery last year was driven partly by consumer spending on foreign goods.

That is unlikely to influence the election. The buoyant jobs market might. It explains in part Macron’s steady 24-26 percent support and 8 to 9 point lead in Round One

The spike in petrol pump and food prices, however, could start to pull his numbers in the other direction in the next seven weeks.

France is not a high-wage country. A recent EU map showed that all parts of France except the Lyon and Paris areas are at, or below, the EU average of GDP per head. It would not take much in the way of further rises in pump and supermarket prices to build real anger in a country which is always quick to blame and slow to praise.

The fall in unemployment is to Macron’s credit. The price rises are not “Macron’s fault”. 

They are, all the same, a dark cloud moving of what looks otherwise like a pretty sunny electoral outlook for the President.

Member comments

  1. Stopped reading here, so rather early:

    The official unemployment rate in France, despite the worst health crisis for a century, fell to 7.4 percent in December, the lowest in 13 years.

    Every one halfway paying attention knows Macron changed the way unemployment was calculated. Check out the French press (I assume Mr. Lichfield cannot read French, thus his error) and they’re all saying the same thing – only a fool would believe these low unemployment numbers.

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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.