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Voting polls: where do we stand?
I – Structural obstacles: an economy undermined by many rigidities
The purpose of this note is to present: 1) the structural obstacles often mentioned by international organisations (whose comments are picked up by the financial community); and 2) the stances of the four main presidential candidates: François Fillon (a conservative-right Republican), Emmanuel Macron (of the centre-moderate left “En marche!” movement), Benoît Hamon (a Socialist) and Marine Le Pen (of the far right National Front). The findings of international organisations are being hushed up (rejected?) by certain candidates (including Le Pen), more or less ignored by others (including Hamon), and somewhat integrated in the platforms of Fillon and Macron, but with very different priorities. This provides a basis on which to compare the platforms with regards to the reforms to be carried out.
France is a country whose potential GDP growth is estimated at 1.2% per year by the European Commission, same as the Eurozone at large. It usually receives an average score (among developed economies) in widely followed surveys focused on competitiveness (the World Bank’sEase of Doing Businessand the World Economic Forum’sGlobal Competitiveness Index… see charts). The OECD’s annual Going for Growth survey (whose purpose is to assess reforms desired and already executed in member-countries) placed France in 2016 in the “Group 4” of developed countries, alongside Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg and Slovenia. The main weakness of these countries is “a high level of unemployment and an early exit from the labour market” and their main strength is “a high level of productivity”. Note however, that in 2017 the OECD identified France as a country where the pace of growth-friendly reforms accelerated in the 2015-2016 period vs that of 2013-2014, while it decelerated, on average, across developed economies1.
In fact, the French economy’s structural problems have been subject to many detailed assessments, regularly carried out by major international organisations or as part of reports commissioned by the government or carried out by various think tanks. Many obstacles to a stronger economic growth are usually identified, but they can, in general, be classified into three major themes clearly announced in the “main findings” of the OECD’s 2015 survey on France:
- “The key challenge is to reform the labour market to promote job growth.”
- “Public spending is too high.”
- “Product-market weaknesses also undermine economic performance.”
Many figures come in support of these three findings:
Regarding the labour market, France indeed shows a wide dichotomy between the security enjoyed by full-time workers (see graph following page) and those under temporary contracts. Remember that, while this view is not shared by the consensus of public opinion (not even among economists), the most common reasoning within organisations like the OECD or the European Commission is that barriers to firing permanent employees also raise obstacles to hiring. The governance and insufficient quality controls of the vocational education system is also seen as a major weakness. In terms of results, while France does indeed have an unemployment rate above the OECD average (although far from being the highest), it also stands out as a country where workers have a very low probability of switching from one job to another2.
As for the weight of public spending and government revenues, France ranks second among developed countries at, respectively, in 2015, 57% of GDP for spending and 53.5% for revenues (only Finland has higher ratios). As shown in a chart below, it is not so much the weight of central government that sets France off from other comparable countries, but, rather, social welfare spending (beginning with pensions) and local governments. The latter point is worth making: French communes represent 27% of the municipalities in the OECD (the United States and Japan included) and 41% of those of the European Union3. In addition to seeing this economic weight of government as one of the main obstacles to the economy, international organisations point out the far-from-optimal structure of taxes and public spending. They notably stress that the share of taxes on labour is excessive, while social welfare spending, in particular, is often considered to be poorly targeted.
Inefficiencies on the products market are harder to quantify but are still measured by different indicators. In this area, OECD highlights that “Weak competition in some industries raises prices and costs, and undermines economic efficiency, potential output and purchasing power” , that “complexity in setting up a business and paying taxes are still constraining factors” and that “controls imposed on professions can seem to be disproportionate to the stated public objectives.” While France does not suffer from an exceptional level of inefficiency on all product markets (especially compared to Germany), studies reveal that restrictions on competition are high in some sectors, starting with those where public monopolies exist or where strong regulatory barriers to entry give excessive protection to incumbent professionals.
It is true, however, that those reports also highlight the French economy’s many assets (we will give more detail on this topic in another note).
The strong points acknowledged by international observers include, in addition to relatively high productivity, an above-average labour force participation of persons aged 25 to 54 (while participation of younger and older persons is weak), a solid banking system, a high level of education (although it is seen as uneven, and with insufficient links between the education and the corporate sectors), an efficient healthcare system and good transport infrastructures. France also offers favourable demographics and a level of social inequalities not higher than the OECD’s average. However this latter point, which is due mostly to the extensive social welfare mechanism, cannot hide the fact that, in France, inequalities tend to be more often passed on within families than within other countries (see chart).
To go back to the issue of structural obstacles, note that a convergence in viewpoints to identifying them does not mean an agreement on the level of priority that must be given to each of them. This certainly applies to the three major areas of the labour market, the economic weight of the government, and the products and services market. To simplify, let’s say that one approach prioritises public spending cuts and tax cuts (the “traditional” right approach), while another focuses on increasing flexibility and competition in the labour, products and services markets, and intends to revise the state’s weight more from a qualitative than from a quantitative point of view (the “flexicurity” approach). This is mainly where the platforms of Fillon and Macron diverge.
II – The platforms of the 4 main presidential candidates address these obstacles in very different ways
Of the four main candidates’ platforms, two give no or only very partial recognition to the aforementioned obstacles, and two do acknowledge them but with very different priorities.
Le Pen and Hamon’s platforms are along lines that are at odds with most international organisations’ recommendations, albeit to very different degrees and with radically opposing inspirations.
Generally speaking, Le Pen’s programme turns its back on the free-market principles defended by organisations such as the OECD and the European Commission. In fiscal policy, Le Pen states she wants to reduce the weight of mandatory contributions while raising some social welfare spending. However, her economic program is marked by a heavy dose of protectionism (going as far as a possible exit from the EU) and a heavier state hand in organising economic sectors, which is not favourable to increased competition. She also wants to revoke the 2016 labour market reforms put through during Hollande’s term of office.
Hamon’s leftist programme diverges from international organizations’ recommendations mainly regarding fiscal policy. Indeed, it includes an aggressive social welfare component (including opening gradually the door to a universal income) that involves at least an initial increase in the weight of public spending. Hamon plans to renegotiate European deficit rules (considering that they should not apply to infrastructure and defence spending) and to put through new taxes (including on robots and banks). Other plans call for denouncing the free-trade agreement with Canada, and the draft TAFTA (Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area) and TISA (the international Trade in Services Agreement). Moreover, Hamon also wants to revoke the 2016 labour market reform, as the lack of flexibility of the labour market is not seen as the main cause of unemployment (which is rather addressed through an increase in public investment, education and innovation). However, some measures in his platform, involving free-lance worker protection and a revamp in professional training, for example, are in line with the improvement of the mobility of workers across sectors, a theme held by international organizations.
Fillon and Macron’s platforms, conversely, do directly take on at least some of the obstacles mentioned above. But their agendas still diverge widely in their inspirations and priorities.
Fillon, the representative of the traditional right, gives priority to the reduction in the level of mandatory contributions and public spending. One of his most prominent commitments is to generate €100bn in public spending savings by the end of his term, mainly by eliminating 500,000 civilservant jobs and pushing back the retirement age. In addition to cutting the deficit, these savings would be earmarked toward funding another key promise – cutting taxes by an amount of €50bn, mostly in favour of corporations (in order to generate a positive cost-competitiveness shock) but also of households. Labour market flexibility only comes in second place (with measures to ease layoffs and a new job contract with pre-set termination clauses). However, while important parts of the public sector would be reformed (notably the education system, where the autonomy and evaluation of institutions must be strengthened) there is little emphasis on increasing competition and eliminating rent-seeking situations on products and services markets provided by the private sector (recall that part of Fillon’s electoral base is made up of independent professionals who are often reluctant to see their sectors open up to competition).
The opposite applies with Macron, who is taking a “flexicurity” approach(that is more Nordic than UK/US). It focuses on innovation, labour flexibility and mobility, greater competition, and the development of new sectors, which implies giving up propping up incumbents and existing jobs at all costs. However these changes are to be accompanied with a revamped yet still generous social safety net (including expanding some mechanisms in order to encourage risk-taking, for example paying jobless benefits to workers who resign on their own accord or self-employed workers). In the fiscal area, targeted savings on public spending (€60bn over the five-year term) are far lower than those announced by Fillon, and public-sector job cuts, considerably less (120,000, a figure not announced as a firm target). These savings would be also partly compensated by a €50bn investment plan aiming at increasing “all citizens’s skills” and modernizing the economy. Similarly, only €20bn in tax cuts are targeted, roughly evenly across corporations and households. Far more than sheer numbers, Macron wants to alter the structure of taxes and social contributions, notably by converting unemployment and sickness contributions into centralized taxes and broadening their base, and by narrowing the wealth tax so that it is only levied on “real estate rent”. He would embrace a similar approach to the pension system (modifying the structure rather than the sheer amounts of pensions and the age of retirement).
So the four main presidential candidates do not all acknowledge the validity of the findings of major international organisations regarding France. However, of the two candidates whose programmes appear to be in phase with these findings, there are significant differences with regard to the priority being given – in one case to reducing public spending and taxes, and in the other cast, to increasing mobility, flexibility and competition on the labour, product and service markets.
In any case, remember that the French president’s constitutional powers in fiscal matters and economic reforms are quite limited. To put his plans through, the new president will need a government inclined to follow along. Thus, the future president’s party (or movement) will have to obtain a majority in the June legislative elections or, at the very least, a score high enough to serve as the lead partner in a coalition.
1 See: Economic Policy Reforms: Going for Growth. Overview of structural reform progress and identifying priorities in 2017, OECD, 2017.
2 See The ins and outs of employment in 25 OECD countries, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No 1350, November 2016.
3 See OECD Economic Surveys, France, March 2015.