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Mid-term neoliberal backlash for Macron in France

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Nationwide fuel protests in France (Screenshot via YouTube)

Nationwide unrest in France centres on widespread suspicion that Macron’s economy has only delivered economic gains to the rich, writes Alan Austin.

Donald Trump is not the only Western leader to cop a voter backlash less than two years into his Presidency.

A story doing the rounds here in France goes thus:

A shabbily-dressed man is wandering along the Champs-Élysées when a big Mercedes stops next to him and the window opens. He peers inside and recognises his childhood friend, Emmanuel Macron!

President Macron recognises him, gets out of the limousine and asks his chauffeur to drive on as they walk together, arm in arm.

“I see your life is succeeding,” says the homeless man.

“Yes it's not bad. And you?”

“It is not going très bien right now.”

As they walk, Macron notices a click-clack with each step and asks, “What is this click-clack?"

“Ah, the sole of my shoe came loose today and I can’t afford to repair it.”

“Wait, I can help you”, says Macron who takes from his pocket a wad of 500 Euro bills held by a rubber band. He removes the rubber band, gives it to his friend and says:

“Voila! Put this around your shoe, to stop the click-clack!”

Nationwide protests

In more than 2,000 locations across France, protesters last weekend blockaded intersections, bridges, toll booths and fuel depots. The trigger for these manifestations is the high diesel price caused partly by taxes Macron has imposed, ostensibly to encourage alternative fuels. But the grievances go deeper than that.

Estimates of the number of protesters, referred to as "gilets jaunes" (yellow vests) because of their bright yellow emergency vests, range up to 300,000. More than 530 people have been injured, including about 90 police, and two people have been killed. Around 90 have been arrested and charged.  

Slow economic progress

For the vast majority of citoyens, Macron’s economy has delivered few, if any, of the benefits promised before the May 2017 Presidential Elections. There is much suspicion that most gains are going to the rich — although the data does not bear this out as clearly as it does in Australia or the USA.

Over the last three years of strong global economic recovery, wealth per person in France, according to Credit Suisse, has increased. The Gini coefficient – which reflects equality of wealth – has also improved. Household debt as a percentage of wealth hasn’t shifted significantly, but national savings are well up. So they are positives.

The jobless rate during the global financial crisis peaked at 10.5% in the 2013 June quarter, then hit that peak again in mid-2015. Since then it has fallen only to 9.1%, which ranks 126th in the world and 25th in the European Union (out of 28 countries).

This looks appalling, but jobless numbers are slightly deceptive in France and some other European countries where it is quite acceptable for workers to take a few months off at taxpayer expense. Depending on how many years were worked before this “vacation”, the dole can be quite generous. This is reflected in the long-term jobless rate which now sits at just 3.4% — down from 4.3% two years ago.

Wages are increasing slowly but so is inflation. So few workers even with full-time jobs have felt much gain in recent years.

Macroeconomic figures are improving but painfully slowly. Annual GDP growth has been continuously positive since 2009 but is now only 1.5%. The trade deficit is steady, with both imports and exports rising gradually. The budget deficit has fallen from 3.9% of GDP in 2014 to 3.4% in 2016 and will be about 2.6% this year.

Okay, Macron has had only 18 months as President. But he was Minister for the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs from 2014 to 2016. So it is raisonnable he cops the blame for the stagnation over some years.

Electoral impact

Opinion polling suggests about 73% of les Français support the current surge of protests.

But it is too soon to judge which opposing party – or presidential candidate – will benefit most from the current unrest.

Macron succeeded last year by steering a course between one prominent candidate on the Left – Jean-Luc Mélenchon – and two on the Right – François Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

In France, the president serves a full five years, as does the national parliament, with no mid-term elections whereby voters can express their support — or anger.

So Macron has time to recover. But unless he wants protests to escalate, things must change soon.

La citoyenne who sent me the story about Macron and the rubber band closed her email with the observation: 

“Do not laugh. This is really happening.”

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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