John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.
There are 10 weeks to go until the first round of the presidential election and the French economy is buzzing.
Growth last year was 7 percent — the highest for half a century and the best in the G7 group of big, industrial nations. Unemployment at 8 percent is the lowest for 15 years.
If you apply the James Carville Rule — “It’s the economy, stupid” — President Emmanuel Macron should glide to a second term in the Elysée Palace on April 10 and 24.
Maybe. It depends on how you interpret the Carville Rule.
Carville was the successful manager of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. His celebrated dictum referred not to the “official” economy but to the “lived” well-being of voters — their sense of prosperity.
I covered the 1992 U.S. election, travelling to a score or more states. The American economy recovered strongly in the months before the vote and boomed soon afterward. And yet it was evident on the campaign trail that rising GDP figures had not revived the spirits of the suffering American heartlands. Clinton won over incumbent George H. W. Bush.
Now fast forward 30 years from U.S. 1992 to France 2022.
Macron and his finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, deserve great credit for the way they have guided the French economy through the COVID pandemic (albeit at the cost of vast state spending and increased debt). The American economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times recently that France was the “star” economic performer among large industrial nations in the last two years.
Out in the French heartlands, however, the mood is darker, especially among those on low and middling incomes.
Inflation was officially only 2.8 percent in 2021. That fails to tell the true story — especially for the lower paid.
Energy prices have soared; heating gas, used widely in rural France, has risen by 57 percent in the first nine months of 2021. The pump prices of petrol and diesel are now 10 centimes a liter higher than those that ignited the original Yellow Jackets rural and provincial revolt in 2018.
Rents and house prices are increasing. Food prices are soaring thanks to the boom in commodity prices worldwide.
Last week there were demonstrations for higher wages in 270 French towns and cities. A large opinion poll by Ipsos for France Inter last week found that the cost of living was by far the most important issue for voters in this year’s campaign (51 percent of those questioned).
The subject which has dominated the debate on the right and far right — immigration and national identity — came only fourth in the league table of popular concerns.
“There is a disconnect between the public debate — both the campaign and the media — and the reality of the everyday lives of people and especially blue-collar workers,” Laurent Berger, head of the moderate French trades union confederation, the CFDT, told newspaper JDD.
Macron, who has yet to formally enter the race, has been watching the situation with rising disquiet — even alarm.
His government has intervened to block the huge rises in electricity prices seen in other European countries. By forcing the state-owned electricity giant EDF to raid its financial reserves and sell to its retail competitors at a loss, Macron hopes to keep the rise in power bills to 4 percent this year.
That’s not all. His prime minister, Jean Castex, announced last week a 10 percent increase in the tax break given to people who need to use a car to get to work. A €100 “cost of living” subsidy to all poor and middling households, promised last October, has been arriving in bank accounts all over France in the last two weeks.
The cost of living crisis is scarcely Macron’s fault. Similar problems face all developed nations, as the world economy adjusts to the apparent retreat of the COVID pandemic. But “it’s not my fault” is not an argument that goes down well during an election.
You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to find historical precedents for an incumbent president unseated by the economic distress inflicted on ordinary lives by global events.
President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was defeated in 1981 after the oil-price shocks of the 1970s caused rampant “stagflation” — a previously unseen cocktail of inflation, low growth and unemployment.
President Nicolas Sarkozy lost in 2012 after the markets and euro crises of 2008-11 generated a double spike in unemployment and the “real” cost of living.
Sarkozy, just as Macron does now, pointed to official figures showing that the French grew richer each year during his mandate. Poorer and middling French voters, then as now, looked at their end-of-month bank balances and saw no sign of increased prosperity.
Macron has several factors on his side. Unemployment is falling, not rising as it was in 1981 and 2012. In the elections in those years, economic distress helped to bring Socialist presidents to power. This year the French left remains scattered and weak, despite promising big increases in social payments and the minimum wage.
What of Macron’s other rivals? The far-right pundit turned politician Eric Zemmour is interested only in what he sees as the long-term decline of France, not a short-term decline in “real” wages.
The other far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, does make “le pouvoir d’achat” (purchasing power) part of her platform. She wants, inter alia, to cut taxes on fuel of all kinds (while claiming that she is committed to action against climate change).
The center-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse, has promised a 10 percent increase in all salaries below €36,000 a year — although she seems to be quietly scaling back on that promise — while calling for less state intervention in the economy.
Neither idea has set the campaign alight. On the economy at least, Macron is fortunate in having unconvincing opponents — for now.
He remains comfortably ahead of the pack in “horserace” polls for the first round of voting on April 10. His approval ratings are, however, beginning to deflate.
A recent poll by IFOP for the Journal du Dimanche showed approval of Macron falling by 4 points in a week to 37 percent — with the cost of living given as one of the principal reasons.
When he does enter the race formally, probably next week, Macron will no doubt look for some way of sweetening the everyday lives of French citizens. But what?
Any money he spends before April would look like a raid on public funds to help his campaign. Any longer-term promises might seem too vague and ephemeral.
Macron’s France has (with some reason) been hailed by the New York Times and Financial Times as an economic “star” and the unexpected, new “locomotive” of European growth. None of that pays the nation’s gas bills.
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