This year’s presidential elections in France are extremely polarizing and controversial, not only because of the scandals in which several candidates are involved, but also because of the cleavages that characterise the French society and, of course, the issues at stake. The socio-economic challenges the country is facing are manifold, at the core of many political debates and hence dominant issues of the candidates’ campaigns. Our newest GED Focus Paper provides an overview of France’s overall socio-economic situation and of the policy solutions the five top candidates propose. You can click above to download the full paper or continue reading here for a brief abstract and summary of the paper’s main findings.


What issues are at stake in France?


When the French head to the polls to elect their new president on April 23rd and May 7th, questions of economic and social policy will be at the centre of many people’s concerns: How can stagnating unemployment rates – particularly the acutely high youth unemployment rate – be reduced? How can economic growth, that is picking up only slowly, be stimulated further? How can France and its economy define their place in a world that is increasingly globally integrated?


The socio-economic challenges the country is facing are manifold:


  • France’s economy has rarely been among the fastest growing in Europe. In 2016, it achieved a growth rate of 1.2 percent, which is relatively paltry. Industrial production especially has experienced a double-dip recession since the financial crisis. In contrast, the service sector, which makes up almost 80 percent of value added French GDP, remained more stable.
  • Unemployment is the most pressing issue in these elections. Since 2012, unemployment in France has been stagnating around or slightly above 10 percent. Youth unemployment is particularly high at 24.6 percent and almost 9 out of 10 new employment contracts are of a temporary nature. The Hollande administration has introduced several reforms but they are starting to show their effects just now. Generally, France has a generous welfare state, which provides substantial benefits. At 32 percent of French GDP, the total of social expenditures is the highest within the OECD.
  • Fiscal Policy: Placed under the Excessive Deficit Procedure in 2009, France has made some efforts to reduce its deficit, but still struggles to comply with the criteria of the Stability and Growth Pact. Public debt has been rising sharply since the financial crisis and is close to 100 percent. Taxes in France remain above the OECD average.
  • Trade Policy: France is strongly integrated into the global economy and is one of the world’s top trading nations. Nevertheless, French export market shares have decreased over the past 15 years. The country does most of its trade with its European partners, with Germany being by far France’s most important trade partner.


Who are the candidates?


Among the main contenders for the Presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France insoumise) is the most left-leaning candidate. He promises wide-ranging constitutional and welfare state reforms and has sceptical positions regarding the European Union and globalisation. Benoît Hamon (Parti socialiste) represents the left leaning wing of his party. His campaign gravitates around reforms of the welfare state and retracting the labour market reforms of the incumbent government. At the center of France’s political spectrum, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche! movement) is the surprise candidate who promises a course of moderate reforms and who is openly pro-European. Francois Fillon’s (Les Républicains) course is characterised by economic liberalism and social conservatism. Finally, Marine Le Pen (Front National) on the far-right wants to withdraw France from the Euro and the EU and reaffirm national sovereignty.


But even though socio-economic challenges are of vital importance, the story of these presidential elections cannot be told without taking into account the massive impact of the deep cleavages that run through both the country’s political landscape and its society.


There are the well-known and traditional  divisions, such as the polarisation between left and right; between workers and capitalists, Catholicism and secularism; between Paris and rural France, the inner cities and the banlieues; between labour market insiders and outsiders – to name but a few. Something has nevertheless changed, and it is something not unique to France, but rather a development, which has put immense pressure on many Western societies: First, people seem to have lost faith in their political establishments, which could not be more drastically shown than by the run-offs to this year’s general elections: None of the traditional parties’ candidates, neither Benôit Hamon of the Parti Socialiste nor Francois Fillon of Les Républicains, is likely to get into the final election round on May 7th let alone become the next French President.


The second and fundamental difference to previous elections is the over-riding impact of the voter’s choice between -seclusion and internationalism, between an open society and one which is closed. As in other Western societies which face the menacing rise of populism, the fear is great in France that the gap left by the traditional parties will be filled by the far-right Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen. To only think of the consequences that a victory of hers would yield for France, but also for the European project is appalling.


What does this mean for France’s and Europe’s future?


For weeks now, the polls predict two “outsiders” from the traditional political landscape in France to get into the final election round. Yet, some uncertainties remain, such as the potentially high share of non-voters and those who are still undecided which candidate to vote for. This electoral uncertainty is not identical across the political spectrum, as for example far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s electorate stands firmly behind her. But even though she paints herself as the anti-establishment candidate, she, a long-time member of French political life and leader of a long-standing party, can by no means be counted as much of an outsider as she wishes.


If the polls prove at least partially right, the final round on 7th May will see the contrast between hers and another vision of a future France which could not be more different: It will be the sharp contrast between Le Pen’s grim vision of a protectionist, secluded France, that closes the door on immigration, breaks with the Euro and potentially the EU altogether and isolates itself; and, on the other hand, the vision of the candidate of the En Marche! movement, Emmanuel Macron: an optimistic and open-minded France which defines itself as a driver of European integration as well as of a globally integrating world.


The contrast is sharp, reflecting those deep rifts and confrontations within French society which are fundamentally shaping these elections: Between whether the French want to have an open society or shut themselves off. Whether they want to shield themselves from Europe and the world, or actively embrace a global and European vision for the country. It is a clash between openness and seclusion that is not uniquely French, but has rather strongly shaped political discussions and democratic choices in the Western world for some time now. It is now up to the French voters to decide: Will France choose protectionism, exclusion and international isolation? Or will it find the courage to shape a new future, for itself, within and for Europe?


One thing is clear: Whichever path France chooses, it will define not only its own future but that of Europe too.