Why the Economy Should Be the Most Important Topic in the Upcoming French Elections

Hello France, Belgium calling...

With an interest, unknown to me in previous years, I'm following the election campaign leading up  to the first round of the French presidential elections. And I think I'm not the only one. There seems to be a growing awareness of the influence the political leadership of other member states has on our political stability and economy.

Since it seems that also in France, there is an apparent shift away from traditional centrist parties towards non-traditional parties, this election could give an indication of the direction our politics, economies and thus our societies will take in the coming years. Considered there are also elections coming up in September in Germany, 2017 is the year in which international policies may take a new turn.

This shift is most outspoken in the popularity of three candidates: Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

- Marine Le Pen is the leader of the extreme right-wing party Front National and is well-known in the political arena from previous years. Currently she focuses mainly on putting a stop to migration and leaving the EU.  

- Emmanuel Macron is the leader of the new party En Marche and believes in international cooperation in the context of the EU. Even though his views are to be considered centrist, his popularity is surprising because he, as a politician, and his party are new to the arena.

- Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the leader of the new left-wing party La France insoumise. He is not new to politics, but still his popularity is surprising because he supports a citizen-based movement for change, the sharing economy,  ecological planning, and deeply reforming the EU to bring social harmony.

Since two of these three candidates have voiced strong criticism for the EU, their becoming president of a country that plays such a central role in EU politics could have far-reaching impact, both for international political stability and for our economies.

Strangely enough, the economy, which is crucial for the well-being of French citizens as well as the citizens of the other European member states, is hardly addressed adequately. Apart from the recurring points from every election (more jobs, better services, tax reforms), attention is mostly spent on the issues of migration and sovereignty.

This is where politicians fail to address what is happening below the surface. We are still seeing the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis that started almost ten years ago and many people are still suffering its consequences. Even though we sometimes hear news of a return to growth with some small percentage points, we currently live in a climate where the middle class is eroding and the lower class is struggling to make ends meet.

Economic policies have an effect on our everyday lives, whether they are about unemployment rates, or pensions, or the stagnation in wages, or taxation, or affordable housing, or support for people starting up their own business. In fact, all other themes are connected with the economy or even subordinated to it, whether it's migration, safety, education or environmental policies. Any decision on these themes will fit the economic model the government supports.

Connection politics - economy - society

And so I, a citizen of Belgium, sit in front the TV to watch a French election campaign. Considered the views of the three popular candidates mentioned above, I'm worried, because I know the outcome of this election might have an impact on my life. And yet, while the economic decisions they might take when elected could have an impact on all of us, the main issues under discussion are migration and sovereignty. The policies the presidential candidates will suggest for these issues will be strongly related to their economic viewpoints, as shown below.

On the EU and Sovereignty

Whether decisions are taken on a local/regional, the national or on European level, is not a matter of ideology, but of efficiency. Whether or not to build a bridge over a river is a local or regional decision, how the justice system should work is a national decision, how to combat terrorism in Europe needs to be a European decision, and how to stop climate change and protect the planet is a decision to be taken globally. We do not longer live in societies that can survive by themselves.

The focus on France as a nation and possibly leaving the EU is from my point of view a purely emotional one. I don't reject feelings of national identity, but they shouldn't lead to the detriment of the well-being of the citizen or the efficiency of the state. And by leaving the EU, both possibilities are a serious risk. We begin to see the effects of Brexit for the UK. Many companies are leaving to re-establish on the European continent. Other companies that were involved in international trade are losing clients because buying with competitors within the EU will be cheaper due to the import tariffs.

Does that mean that the EU is doing just fine? Not necessarily. The criticism for the EU has grown over the past years, mainly due to the way it has dealt with the crisis. The EU is one of the biggest economies of the world, yet we were the last and slowest to recover. The measures of austerity have caused a lot of harm and have shown how rigid the EU can be, also when faced with the suffering of its own citizens. It shouldn't be a surprise that this rigidity comes with a price. The trust in the EU institutions has never been as low as today.

A misunderstanding, though, is that the decision-making process of the EU isn't democratic. This claim is largely unfounded. The procedures to make laws (regulations and directives) in the EU involve the Commission, the Parliament elected by the citizens and the Council which consists of ministers from the member states. The Council usually needs to vote by unanimity, meaning that the member states basically have veto right. Any 'undemocratic' processes taking place, are not a problem of procedures, but of the more complex dynamics between individual people and institutions. Please see Verhofstadt, wie wil die defensie-unie eigenlijk? (in Dutch) for more information on this subject.


On Migration

Immigrants and the policies that apply to them can largely be divided into three groups. Looking at the figures for France gives the following overview:

- EU citizens: according the founding principles of the European Union, EU citizens have the right of free movement within the EU member states. This means they are allowed to live and work in any member state they choose. According to United Nations statistics from 2015, roughly 2.1 million French citizens live outside France and another 350 000 are cross-border workers.

- Refugees and asylum seekers: asylum is granted to people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country and are therefore in need of international protection. Asylum is a fundamental right; granting it is an international obligation, first recognised in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. When their application for international protection is accepted, they receive the status of "refugee".

- Other migrants: people who have decided to move to a different country in the hope of better job prospects, to be with their partner, to have a better climate etc. This includes "economic" migrants from poor countries, but also high-skilled workers from rich countries such as the US or Australia.

Migration has advantages and disadvantages, and thus supporters and opponents. And this is where the economy comes in.

Advantages of Migration

The main advantage for citizens is the right to free movement. By EU law, citizens can study, work and live abroad if they so wish, without having to pay double taxes or other administrative difficulties. This offers many opportunities for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers as long as they have the ability and motivation to leave their country.

Cross-border mobility is encouraged in Europe, especially in countries where there is a lack of suitable candidates for certain types of jobs and in countries where the population is ageing. People with skills in high demand will gladly be welcomed and having an extensive labour force is encouraged to be able to maintain social welfare on the long term.

Disadvantages of Migration

The main disadvantage to both citizens in the host country and the migrant workers is social dumping. In certain sectors, such as transport and construction, foreign workers are hired for very low wages as they are officially employed by companies in their country of origin. The costs of hiring French workers is much higher, so they have difficulty finding a job. Added to that is the competition for social housing and the rise of house prices in general.

This trend is already going on for a number of years. There are also other factors that have an impact on the availability of jobs and job security, such as large industries that have closed their factories in France and moved to low-wage countries. With the advance of digitalisation and automation, some jobs in other sectors are being outsourced or will require less workers, further increasing the pressure and insecurity for large parts of the population.

The other main disadvantage is the fear of terrorism. The past few years, we have seen an increase in terrorist attacks in Europe. To prevent these from happening in the future, the policies applied should work both on prevention and on punishment. How much of a connection there is between migration and terrorism, is hard to say. Even though we can assume that some immigrants will have extremist sympathies, it did turn out that the terrorists from the attack on Charlie Hebdo were French, 7 out of 11 terrorists from the November 2015 attacks were French or Belgian and 2 were Iraqi, and the perpetrator from the Nice raid was Tunisian, not typically a country associated with terrorism. In any case, looking at the figures above, the threat of terrorism comes both from outside and from within.


Deeper-lying Problems vs Symptoms

France faces many problems, some of which are very clear, such as the terrorist attacks, and some of which stay below the surface, such as the effects of social dumping and rising housing prices. In this election campaign – as in many others – the issues being discussed are mostly symptoms of deeper-lying problems. Whether this is because politicians are failing to see what stays below the surface, whether they are unable to offer solutions or whether they prefer to deal with clear-cut issues instead of complex ones, is not up to me to judge. However, it's clear the new president of France is waiting a very heavy task. I hope both for the citizens of France as well as for myself as a citizen of Europe that he or she understands the dynamics of the deeper-lying problems and will tackle the economic issues instead of the symptoms they lead to. By making France more resilient and by building European relationships, France could trigger a positive influence for our political stability and economies – or the opposite.

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