Across the Western world, the elite and the experts are under attack. This is especially true of economic experts, whose credibility took a deserved beating during and after the global financial crisis.
France is no exception to this tendency. In the first round of the country’s presidential elections in May, 45 percent of the vote went to anti-establishment candidates 1 — just shy of the 46 percent of the popular vote that Donald Trump got in the US.
Yet France is now led by not a populist but by President Emmanuel Macron, a polished, centrist product of elite educational institutions, the civil service and Rothschild & Co. who was the country’s economy minister from August 2014 to August 2016.
Macron’s new En Marche! party is rapidly gaining ground in the polls for next month’s legislative elections, giving him the strong prospect of taking full control of the government over the summer. If that happens, or even if he has to build a coalition with the center-right, Macron will then push for a set of expert-designed economic reforms aimed at getting France out of its long economic funk.
This is, first of all, an object lesson in how different electoral systems can process similar public attitudes into dramatically different political results. It is also going to be a fascinating test of whether those elite experts can actually get something right.
I’m guessing that in France they probably will — in large part because the conditions are so ripe. For the past few years, the country has been a leading candidate for the venerable title of “sick man of Europe.” Economic growth has been excruciatingly slow, unemployment stubbornly high. Yet some key fundamentals are strong: French workers are among the most productive in the world, with output per worker trailing only the U.S. among major economies. And, in sharp contrast to the situation in neighboring Germany, Italy and Spain, France’s working-age population is actually expected to grow over the next few decades.
The basic problem is that France hasn’t been putting enough of its people to work.
The standard economic-expert explanations for this (the European Commission issued a useful roundup earlier this week) are that French labor markets are too rigid, there’s too little competition in the economy, and taxes on business and labor are too high. During his stint as economy minister, Macron pushed for reforms aimed at fixing some of these problems, with limited success. Now he’s president, elected on a platform of reform. Presumably that means he’ll get further this time.
How much further he’ll get is of course the big question — France is notoriously resistant to market-oriented reforms. But while in past decades such efforts could be derided as forays into Anglo-Saxon cowboy capitalism, the models Macron can point to these days tend to be Teutonic or Nordic. The continental European countries to France’s north all have strong labor unions, well-developed welfare states, and usually some kind of job security for workers — and (with the exception of Belgium) they’ve all been doing a much better job of putting people to work in recent years than either France or the U.S. has. The keys seem to be flexibility and a focus on investing in the future instead of trying to preserve the status quo.
Again, it seems a tall order to think France can suddenly become as nimble as Denmark or Sweden. But it probably doesn’t have to. As is apparent in the above chart, France actually had a pretty healthy prime-age employment-to-population ratio at the time of the financial crisis. But the aftermath, and the drawn-out euro crisis, hit France especially hard. Now most signs are that those headwinds are easing and French economic growth is beginning, fitfully, to accelerate. In other words, Macron may turn out to be quite lucky in his timing. Cutting back on job protections would be less of a political minefield if companies are hiring, and growth would make it appear that his reforms are succeeding even before they really start having an effect.
There are two deeper labor market problems that seem harder to fix but could drive growth for years if Macron and his experts can find solutions. One is the large number of immigrants who are disconnected from the French job market. The employment gap between native-born and foreign-born is bigger in France than almost anywhere else in Europe. There’s no reason this has to be the case — in the U.S., immigrants are more likely to be employed than the native-born — but bringing more immigrants into the workforce could require big changes in labor-market regulation, vocational training programs and attitude. 2
The other issue is the huge number of educated, ambitious French people who have sought their fortunes elsewhere during the past two decades. As Philip Delves Broughton put it in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month:
Some time after the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, during the long drear of the Jacques Chirac years, they began to leave. All those graduates of Paris’s famed lycées, Henri IV and Stanislas, and the products of its vaunted grandes écoles looked at what France had to offer and hoofed it, some for New York, a few for Silicon Valley, and a great thundering herd for London.
With Brexit, London is likely to become a tougher place for French nationals to make a living. The U.S. has recently become less welcoming to immigrants as well. Which means this is a moment of opportunity. French authorities are already working hard to persuade financial firms to move operations to Paris — an effort that was assisted greatly by Macron’s election victory. Reversing the brain drain will be tough, but even just slowing it would be a huge victory. A few tax cuts here, a few signs of momentum there, and maybe the tide could start to turn.