Since the economic crisis of 2009, socio-economic inequalities in France have been steadily rising. The global inequality trends are reflected similarly in France: the top 10% of the population owns an increasing proportion of French wealth, while more and more people are falling into precarious economic situations. These economic trends, combined with a perception of increased elitism, as well as a disconnect between the ruling class and the population have weakened France’s social fabric.
Emmanuel Macron aims to reduce these socio-economic inequalities through a strong, competitive economy with significant job growth. To relaunch a French economy whose GDP has been stagnating below 1% for years, Macron has outlined a series of liberal reforms aiming to energize the job market and attract foreign investment. Staying in line with his socialist youth, his social policies aim to give all within France equal opportunity to succeed, giving way to a reform of the education system.
However, parts of the French left and extreme-right are hostile to Macron’s liberal policies, which they believe will further accelerate socio-economic inequalities and benefit only the wealthiest in France. These opponents also point to Macron’s elitist studies, time as a banker, and his liberal reforms as Minister of the Economy under Hollande as proof that the French president only seeks to advance the interests of a select few in France. These grievances have erupted into full social contestation movements with the Gilets-Jaunes and opposition to the retirement system reform. Through political manoeuvring, Macron has sought to implement the social-reforms he promised as a candidate while giving in to certain demands of his opponents, notably on immigration and the environment.
Popular Response to Social Reforms
Macron has been confronted with widespread opposition to his reforms. He was elected on a platform of reforming France’s socio-economic system and pushing these reforms through even in the event of large public contestation. However, it’s also important to point out that although he won 66% of the vote in the second round of the 2017 presidential elections, many voters voted only against extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and therefore not directly in favour of Macron or his program. Nevertheless, the French president has counted on his “silent majority” to back him in the polls throughout the implementation of the reforms, especially during the expected strikes and protests. This bet has only partially paid off, as the president’s approval rating averages in the mid-30% to low 40%, occasionally reaching as low as 28%.
Notably, Macron’s decision to abolish the Wealth Tax (Import sur la Fortune) to keep capital within the country led the opposition to call him “President of the Rich”, a term that has plagued his presidency. His attempts to portray himself as a centrist with socialist leanings are blunted by this nickname, while 45% of French people believe his party is right-leaning. Part of the French public has always been quick to label any right-leaning president as the “President of the Rich”. Indeed, France has a strong socialist history, and certain labour unions, notably those in transport and industry, are very powerful (they can organize strikes that paralyze the country). These unions oppose any attempts to reform French labour laws, the retirement system and special privileges of civil servants.
Nevertheless, socio-economic inequalities have been increasing in France since the 2009 economic crisis, notably due to tax breaks, liberal reforms and the slow economic recovery. The French poverty rate (people living under the minimum wage of €1200) has gone from 13% in 2009 to 14.7% in 2018, while 10% of France’s wealthiest earn 6.7 times more than 10% of France’s poorest; 10% of France’s wealthiest earn 24% of the country’s wages and half of France’s wealth. Although inequality has risen, France remains one of the most redistributive countries in Europe and in the world. Macron’s socio-economic challenge rests in making the French economy competitive, without over liberalizing the country and consequently raising inequalities.
Macron was especially confronted with massive protests against his implementation of a carbon tax and his major reform of the French retirement system. The carbon tax translated to an increase in gas prices, which was highly unpopular and led to the Gilets-Jaunes movement. Eventually, these protests evolved into a more general revindication against wealth inequality and opposition to the government’s liberal policies. Protestors were mainly from the working class, labour unions, civil servants and countryside, essentially part of the French population that felt excluded by Macron’s policies. Faced with massive popular opposition to a tax that was not his priority, Macron backed down, doing away with the carbon tax and raising the minimum wage by €100. Pictures of burning cars and protestors clashing with police on the Champs Elysées dented France’s reputation on the international stage, and by extension Macron’s standing.
In response, the French president initiated the “Great Debate”. He toured the country, listening to the grievances of the French people, explaining his vision for the country and trying to understand the root causes of the Gilets-Jaunes. This extensive democratic debate showed he was capable of reacting to social contestation and listening to his constituents, which helped him increase his approval rating in April 2019. The Great Debate revealed to Macron that a majority of the French population had strong feelings of fiscal injustice, abandonment by the state, lack of trust in the elites and fear of great transformations to come (technological, environmental, social status…).
Macron thus, initiated a series of reforms, such as giving more autonomy to regions, making legislative elections partly proportional, lowering taxes on the middle class, raising them on the rich, clarifying environmental policies and creating a commission made of citizens selected randomly to continue the debate on these topics. These proposals were in line with Macron’s personal ideology, which puts an emphasis on the state’s ability to accurately represent its citizens, reduce socio-economic inequalities and provide an opportunity for all. The Great Debate helped Macron’s position vis-à-vis his opposition, as it showed he was a president willing to listen and adapt to the people’s necessities. However, the highly unpopular reform of the retirement system in late 2019 would once again make Macron’s popularity crumble.
When the French president initiated his reform of the retirement system in 2018, labour unions started nationwide strikes on all public transport, essentially paralyzing the country, while large protests were held in the street. Part of the French population ardently opposes this reform as it would remove certain professions’ special privileges (higher retirement allowance, the choice to go into retirement earlier than the legal age…), giving all in France a similar retirement package. However, unlike the carbon tax, the retirement system reform was a central element of Macron’s program, and he refused to back down.
To move past the political deadlock in the National Assembly, Macron activated the “49.3”, an article of French constitutional law that allows the executive to force the adoption of law if the government receives a vote of confidence from the National Assembly. 49.3 is very unpopular in France as it’s commonly seen as a denial of democracy and a method to pass laws that the people don’t want. Macron pushed on with the reform as he was confident his “silent majority” would support his action. Nevertheless, the decision to use 49.3 dented Macron’s popularity, and by February 2020, Macron’s approval rating fell to 32%.
The Challenge of Immigration and Integration
Throughout his presidential campaign, Macron adopted a lenient approach on matters of immigration, notably to differentiate himself from the candidates on the political right and attract leftist voters. Macron’s specialist heritage influenced his immigration views, as he considers that France should be a place of opportunity for all that are able to enter it legally.
However, once in office, his tone significantly changed, as he proclaimed “France cannot welcome all of the world’s misery”. Indeed, France is faced with the eternal question: how can the country integrate immigrants into French civil life? Macron is confronted with suburbs plagued by crime and violence, with many young adults born from second-third generation immigrant families failing to associate with French “values”. Many of these youth feel abandoned by the government, provided with little to no economic opportunities and drawn to their origin country’s traditions, creating strong zones of communitarianism. These trends have been amplified by the migrant crisis of the 2010s when France accepted hundreds of thousands of new immigrants.
The Gilets-Jaunes movement and surge of extreme-right sentiment has pushed Macron to implement stricter immigration laws, while the French president has opted for a reform of the education system to better integrate new immigrants and provide equal opportunities to all. Macron’s stricter immigration policies are popular in France, as 60% of the population believes the country can no longer welcome immigrants due to differing values, economic strain and job losses.
France is also forced to abide by European immigration quotas while pushing Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia to fall in line. However, Macron has come under fire from Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who wrote in 2019 “Enough with decisions made only by Paris and Berlin! Italy will no longer accept all the immigrants that want to enter Europe. France and Germany cannot decide the EU’s immigration policies while ignoring the demands of the countries who are hit the hardest (by the immigration wave).” In response, the French president has renewed his calls to establish common European borders and the European Asylum Office to better coordinate the challenges of immigration in Europe.
Macron’s most impactful policy on immigration is the instauration of quotas. The French political right had been trying to implement immigration quotas for decades, inspired by Canada and Australia. Quotas limit the number of economic migrants allowed in France, depending on the manpower needs of each economic sector from year to year. Globally, since 2017 under Macron, net migration has stabilized to +46,000 per year.
Macron has also toughened his stance on illegal immigration, building 3 new detention centres for deportation, increasing controls on illegal immigration and cracking down on the large illegal camp in Calais. The government has also restrained access to the French healthcare system, notably for major medical operations, in an attempt to reduce that sector’s deficit. The successful implementation of the immigration quotas was a strong political victory for En Marche!, as it blunted the right and extreme right’s anti-immigration rhetoric while forcing the opposition to laud Macron’s stance on immigration. Although the president was criticized by the left for abandoning his original political positions on the subject, and for catering to the political right, the toughening of immigration policies increased Macron’s popularity in France.
To facilitate the integration of immigrants in France and reduce inequality in French society, Macron has implemented a reform of the educational system. This reform draws strongly upon his socialist past, and the concept of equality of chance for all in France. As such, the Macron government has overseen a change in the French baccalaureate, with the suppression of specific study paths (formerly scientific, economic, literature) in favour of a common program for all with specializations, exams throughout the year counting for 40% of the final grade (formerly 0%) and the instauration of a comprehensive oral test. In zones of educational priority, the number of students has been reduced to 12 per class, while teachers in these zones have received higher pay. Kids from the poorest families are given free breakfast and pay only 1€ for lunches, while schooling has become mandatory from the age of 3.
Finally, the transition to professional life is more structured with increased internships, apprenticeships and professional specializations. To improve the integration of immigrants in French society and reduce the amount of homelessness, Macron has built a string of temporary living quarters around the country. He has also pledged a budget of 0.55% of French GDP to international development aid. These policies have been lauded by the opposition, but the left claims Macron is not doing enough to bridge social inequalities in France.