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OPINION: Macron's proudest achievement could now be under threat

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron's proudest achievement could now be under threat
The Pole Emploi (job centre) in Bordeaux, southwestern France. Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP

Cutting France's persistently high unemployment has been Emmanuel Macron's proudest (some say only) achievement as president - but is that now under threat? And could Macron be tempted to go out in a 'blaze of glory' with a highly contentious reform of unemployment rights?


The spectre of unemployment haunted all French governments for almost half a century until Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017.

That spectre may be about to return, threatening the proudest achievement – some say the only achievement – of the Macron years.

When he took office, French unemployment was 9.5 percent and young people’s unemployment 25 percent. By the end of last year, it was 7.1 percent (for all) and 17 percent (for 15 to 24-year-olds).

This was an extraordinary success for which, as I wrote in May, President Macron received little or no praise. Politics, and especially French politics, is perverse. Since unemployment was no longer the country’s greatest problem, Macron got no credit for “solving” it.


In the last two quarters, the official jobless figure has edged up to 7.2 percent and then 7.4 percent. The Bank of France (always gloomy) believes that it will reach 7.8 percent by the end of next year.

The Bank puts the blame on -  that wonderful French word - “la conjuncture”.  Roughly speaking that means “all the combined economic and political circumstances at this moment in time”. The Ukraine war; energy inflation; food inflation; high interest rates; the Chinese slowdown; a stumbling Germany; a protectionist United States.

In France, the “conjuncture” has manifested itself by a slowing in sales of luxury goods and foods to Germany and China and a collapse in private construction projects and building jobs.

Ministers say that this is a blip. They are confident that the erosion of unemployment and the creation of jobs – 2,000,000 new posts since Macron came to power – will resume next year.

The President and the government have more urgent international and domestic problems on their minds at present, from the Gaza war to the cost of living.  All the same, despite the official optimism, the poor jobless figures must be deeply worrying to them.

Emmanuel Macron has promised France “full employment” – statistically defined as no more than 5.5 percent people without jobs – by the end of his second and last term in 2027. The success or failure of his ten years in office will be judged largely on his ability to deliver that bold objective.

Macron may have been denied praise for reducing unemployment in the last six years. No matter. He will be thrashed from all sides if the jobless figure rises again over the next couple of quarters.

Does Macron really deserve credit for the fall in the jobless figure since 2017? Not all the credit but a large dollop  of it.

France used actively to discourage employment. Taxes and rules made it expensive to hire people and difficult to fire them.

That has changed over the last decade. The cost of labour (wages plus the pay-roll taxes which fund health care, pensions and unemployment pay) has been reduced.


The cost of employing people is still higher in France than it is in Germany and all EU countries outside Scandinavia. The average cost to an employer of an hour’s work in France is €38.70, compared to €37.20 in Germany.

Two thirds of the “cost” of a job goes in wages; one third in pay-roll taxes. It used to be more like 50:50.

President Nicolas Sarkozy began to reduce payroll taxes in 2007-12. President François Hollande, with Emmanuel Macron as his economics adviser then finance minister, continued the process in 2012-6.

President Hollande also began to make hiring and firing less complicated. He was detested for it by some in his own Socialist party and by the wider Left.

Macron has accelerated the changes in the last six years, with changes in pay-roll taxes that are criticised by businesses as “vastly complicated” and by the Left as “a giant present to the bosses”.

He has also simplified/reduced job protections and stiffened the rules for claiming unemployment pay. Permanent contracts are no longer quite so unbreakable; as a result employers are more likely to sign them.


The latest development in this process was a sonorously named “full employment law” which passed the National Assembly without fanfare earlier this month. Centre-right deputies, who usually vote against Macron on principle, supported the new law for once.

The legislation reorganises and renames the French state employment services, which will become “France Travail” instead of “Pôle emploi.” It also tightens qualifications for the social safety-net - Le Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA) – available to people who have no, or low, acquired unemployment pay rights.

That is unlikely to make a huge difference but it may help to fill some of the 355,600 vacant posts in France.

The great question that the government now faces is whether it should chop bigger lumps out France’s still-generous social “model”. If the “conjuncture” remains difficult, Macron may  be tempted to do so.

Officially such a policy is not on the table. The finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, believes that it should be.


He told France Inter radio last week “we cannot reach full employment automatically or naturally”. Action was needed, he said, to retrain people and ensure that there were affordable homes near to the available jobs.

But he also declared that France’s social model needed to be “entirely rebuilt” (remise à plat) to ensure that welfare was less attractive to “those who do not work”.

Good luck with that. Any full-frontal assault on the French social model created after the 1939-1945 war would make the recent pension dispute look like a game of ping-pong.

To take effect in time to deliver “full employment” by 2027 – whatever the “conjuncture” – the legislation would need to be prepared in the next few months.

Emmanuel Macron cannot stand for President again. He might or might not be tempted to end his decade in power in a blaze of radical reform and violent trades unions and popular protest.

It would leave his would-be centrist successors – including Mr Le Maire - to face an angry electorate in 2027 and populist opponents of left and far right peddling dubious but attractive-seeming, alternatives.

French politics has entered a relatively quiet and boring phase since September. It may not last long.



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