PARIS – As President Emmanuel Macron weaved through the crowds during a campaign break in northern France last week, an elderly voter came face to face to protest one of his most unpopular economic proposals: raising the retirement age from 62 to 65 to to finance the French national pension system .
“Retiring at 65, no, no!” the woman shouted, jabbing a finger at Mr Macron’s chest as he tried to calm her down. The rambunctious exchange was caught on camera. Two hours later, he withdrew and said he would consider raising the age to 64. “I don’t want to divide the country,” he said on French television.
Mr Macron’s turnaround at a key part of his economic platform, in an industrial region that supports far-right instigator Marine Le Pen ahead of France’s presidential election next Sunday, was a reminder of the social unrest dominating voters’ minds. He and Ms Le Pen have widely differing views on how to address these concerns.
if they crisscross the country in a whirlwind of last minute campaigns, their exit will depend in large part on the perception of the economy. Concerns about mounting economic uncertainty and the rising cost of living amid the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine have become top concerns in the race, ahead of security and immigration.
Ms. Le Pen won by a wide margin on the first ballot last Sunday in places that have lost jobs to deindustrialization, where she has found a willing audience for her promises to boost purchasing power, create jobs through “intelligent” protectionism and shield France from European policies that expanded globalization.
While Macron is still expected to win in a tight race, workers in restless workers’ bastions could still prove a liability. Despite France’s strong recovery from the Covid lockdowns – the economy is now growing at around 7 percent and unemployment has fallen to a 10-year low of 7.4 percent – many feel that inequality has widened before then reduced, as he promised, in the five years since Mr Macron took office.
After France’s traditional left and right parties collapsed on the first ballot, both candidates scramble to lure the undecided and voters drawn to their opponents — most notably far-left meerkat Jean-Luc Mélenchon — largely by rearranging key parts of their economic programs to appeal to those who struggle to make ends meet.
Pensions are an example of this. Mr Macron has worked to recalibrate his image as a president who favors France’s wealthy classes, business and white-collar voters, while overhauling the economy to boost competitiveness.
In 2019, he was forced to put aside plans to raise the retirement age to 65 after much of France was shut down by heavy nationwide strikes. He had tried to streamline France’s complex system of public and private pension schemes into one state-run plan to close a deficit of 18 billion euros, or about 19 billion dollars.
After his showdown in northern France last week, Mr Macron insisted he would continue to push the retirement age incrementally – by four months a year from next year – but that he was open to a later relaxation of the plan. †
“It’s not dogma,” he said of the policy. “I have to listen to what people say to me.”
Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of pursuing a policy of “social wreckage” and of blowing with the wind to win votes, though she has also stepped up a gear after the protectionist economic platform she put forward five years ago. scared companies. Plans to withdraw from the European Union and the Eurozone dropped them.
Today, Ms Le Pen is in favor of maintaining the current retirement age of 62, abandoning a previous attempt to lower it to 60 – although certain workers who do intensive manual work, such as construction, retire at a lower age. can go.
While Ms Le Pen aims to turn her far-right National Rally party into a kinder, gentler party than the party she led in 2017, albeit with a clear anti-immigrant message, she has focused on economic issues close to working-class voters. ‘ hearts.
They came out about one of the campaign’s biggest problems: an increase in the cost of living.
While Mr Macron tried to bring about a ceasefire in Ukraine, Ms Le Pen visited cities and rural areas across France and promised more subsidies for vulnerable households.
She promised a 10 percent increase in the French minimum wage of 1,603 euros per month. She also vows to cut sales taxes to 5.5 percent from 20 percent on fuel, oil, gas and electricity, and cut them all the way on 100 “essential” goods. Employees under the age of 30 would be exempt from income tax and young couples would receive interest-free housing loans.
Her France-first policy goes even further: to make up for higher spending on social programs, she has said she would cut billions in social spending for “foreigners.”
She has also vowed to create jobs and re-industrialize the country by prioritizing French companies for government contracts over foreign investors and dangling a host of expensive tax incentives to encourage French companies that have branched abroad. to return to France.
While she’s dropped talk of a so-called Frexit — a French exit from the European Union — some of her proposals to protect the economy would essentially boil down to that, including a pledge to ignore some European Union laws, including internal free trade. She has said she would withhold some French payments to the bloc.
Mr Macron has labeled such promises “pure fantasy” and is proposing to keep many of his business policies, with changes.
Foreign companies have vowed to lure jobs and investment and under his watch, foreign companies have poured billions of euros into industrial projects and research and development, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs, many in tech start-ups, in a country that has not easily embraced change. .
At the same time, he faced the challenge of rejecting the image of a distant president whose policies benefited the wealthiest. His abolition of a wealth tax and the introduction of a 30 percent flat tax on capital gains has especially boosted the incomes of the richest 0.1 percent. and increased the payment of dividends, according to the government’s own analysis.
After a widening wealth gap helped spark the yellow vest movement in 2019, putting struggling working class people on the streets, Mr Macron raised the minimum wage and made it easier for companies to hire workers. “purchasing power bonuses” of up to 3,000 euros per year without being taxed, a policy he has promised to strengthen.
As inflation has risen recently, Mr Macron has also authorized billions of euros in subsidies for utility bills and at the gas station and has pledged to tie pension payments to inflation from this summer. He swore new tax cuts for both households and businesses.
Its economic platform also aims for ‘full employment’, in part by continuing a series of business reforms that have continued to garner support from France’s largest employers’ organization, Medef.
“Emmanuel Macron’s program is the most beneficial to ensure economic and job growth,” the group said last week, adding that Ms Le Pen’s platform “would make the country stall compared to its neighbors and put it on the sidelines of the European Union.”
Despite all the differences, Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen’s pledges have one thing in common: more government spending and less savings. According to estimates by the Institut Montaigne, a French economic think tank, Mr Macron’s economic plan would increase the government deficit by €44 billion, while Ms Le Pen’s would increase it by €102 billion.
“These shifts are significant enough to think that some of their proposals can’t really be implemented – unless they introduce austerity measures they’re not talking about,” said Victor Poirier, director of publications at the Institut Montaigne.