The media response to the French election reads like some people had too much cannabis. From the first paragraph of a front page news analysis of the New York Times: “It was globalization against nationalism. It was the future versus the past. Open versus closed.”
Let’s not get carried away. It’s great that Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party with deep racist roots that go back to French collaborators during the Nazi occupation, as well as French colonialism, was defeated by a large margin of the votes cast. There were no signs that she had any realistic chance of winning, but people were understandably nervous after the Brexit and Trump votes. On the other hand, her 34 percent of the vote was about twice that of her father in 2002, who ran against the conservative Jacques Chirac. And abstentions this time were higher than in any French election since 1969; together with blank or spoiled ballots, 34 percent of the electorate chose none of the above.
Most importantly, if the “global open future” of France and Europe is going to be like the recent past, then the National Front and similar movements are still going to have some growth potential. Because it is primarily the economic policies of Europe, including France, over most of the past decade, that have allowed the National Front to progress from a marginalized boil on the body politic to what is now treated as a legitimate, serious opposition party.
And the President-elect, Emmanuel Macron, shows little sign that he is going to challenge these failed economic policies. His campaign program said he would cut 60 billion euros from government spending over the next five years. This isn’t that large — about 0.5 percent of GDP for this period — but the government would need to actually increase spending in the short run if it were going to do anything to bring down mass unemployment. Not to mention the investment needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide the education and training that displaced workers need, or reverse the deeply unpopular, and unnecessary, pension cuts that were made in the last seven years.
Sadly, most of the public economic debate keeps people from understanding these problems, their causes, and solutions. The conventional wisdom as reported in the media is that France has too much debt to do anything that would require more government spending or borrowing, since its net public debt is about 89 percent of GDP. This is still far above the limit imposed by the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty, which is set at 60 percent of GDP. But aside from the fact the majority of European Union countries are well above the limit, the Maastricht rule is an arbitrary one. What matters much more than the debt as a percent of GDP is the burden of the debt. For a country that is not in trouble, like France, there isn’t a problem of rolling over bonds that come due. The relevant figure is therefore the interest burden on the debt, which for France is currently just 1.7 percent of GDP, which is quite modest.
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The promoters of austerity argue that this interest burden will rise as interest rates go up, and therefore the debt-to-GDP ratio must be brought down as soon as possible. But if we can imagine the conditions under which French borrowing costs would be forced up (they are currently about zero in real terms), they would also be conditions in which the economy is growing faster and inflation is higher. So the debt could still be affordable.
Macron’s program and track record indicate that he buys into the current dogma of the European Union authorities (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF) that France’s 10 percent unemployment is “structural,” rather than a result of weak demand. The solutions are therefore reforms that push down wages (laws weakening unions), increase labor supply (tighten eligibility for unemployment insurance and other social benefits), or worsen job security.
The 2015 Macron law, which made it easier for employers to dismiss workers, is a good example of how much these reforms are worth in terms of improving the economy or employment. The OECD looked at five sets of provisions in the law and estimated that these would lead to GDP ten years from now that is just 0.4 percent bigger than it would be without the law. In other words, France would have a GDP in August of 2025 that they would otherwise not have until December of 2025.
Macron’s deficit reduction and structural reforms are part of the problem, not the solution. They may worsen French income distribution and create more economic insecurity, but that will not resolve the real structural problems that have collapsed the centrist parties in France, whose basic program Macron will likely continue to implement.