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French economy, EU top agenda in race for president

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France heads into presidential elections in April and May with the economy in the forefront of voters' minds, after outgoing Socialist leader Francois Hollande failed to turn unemployment around and growth remains stagnant.

[PARIS] France heads into presidential elections in April and May with the economy in the forefront of voters' minds, after outgoing Socialist leader Francois Hollande failed to turn unemployment around and growth remains stagnant.

Here is a snapshot of the state of the nation ahead of the 2017 election:

Mr Hollande staked his presidency on reining in unemployment, but in five years in office, he failed to move the needle significantly.

The jobless rate, stuck at around 10 per cent throughout most of his term, currently stands at 9.7 per cent, and at 24 per cent for youths under 25.

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Taking office in 2012, Mr Hollande pledged to "reverse the curve" by the following year while responding to EU pressure to bring down France's ballooning budget deficit.

The 62-year-old conservative Francois Fillon, whose poll numbers are plummeting over a financial scandal after he was leading the race for months, has vowed to bring the rate down to 7 per cent, if elected, by the end of his first term in 2022.

Mr Fillon's remedy is to scrap the 35-hour work week, pare unemployment benefits and phase out half a million civil service jobs.

Former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, 39, whose support has risen with Mr Fillon's woes, is pitching himself in the middle, advocating free trade and globalisation while vowing to preserve a strong social safety net.

With more than 1.5 million manufacturing jobs lost in France in the past 25 years, Socialist rebel Benoit Hamon, 49, is at the other end of the spectrum, saying that the digital revolution is killing jobs and that a basic universal income is an idea whose time has come.

Even further left, the communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65 - who scored an eye-catching 11 per cent in the first round of the 2012 presidential election - wants to raise the minimum wage, add a week to paid holidays and trim the work week to 32 hours.

On the far right, National Front leader Marine Le Pen says getting France out of the eurozone will stimulate job growth.

The French economy grew 1.1 per cent in 2016, short of the 1.4 per cent forecast by Mr Hollande's government.

The 2015 migrant crisis and the string of terrorist attacks in France bolstered Ms Le Pen's nationalist arguments, lifting her standing in the polls to as much as 27 per cent - and making her the projected leader of the pack in the first round of the presidential race, though she is not currently tipped to win in the May 7 runoff.

Ms Le Pen has called for a referendum to pull the country out of the 28-member European Union, a move that could cause the bloc to unravel.

Short of urging a "Frexit", Mr Melenchon is calling for a review of the European treaties to put an end to austerity policies.

Following US intelligence allegations that Russia meddled in the US elections in November, the French candidates' attitudes towards Moscow are coming under scrutiny.

Mr Fillon in particular has a warm rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin dating from when they were both prime ministers, and is eager to repair relations that cooled under Mr Hollande.

Friendliness towards Russia stems partly from a desire for a foreign policy that is independent of the United States', said Bertrand Badie of Sciences Po university in Paris.

The reset may not take the form of an alliance "but at least cooperation with Russia, notably over Syria," he said, noting that Ms Le Pen and Mr Melenchon also favour a rapprochement.

While the string of terror attacks in France that claimed more than 200 lives between Jan 2015 and July 2016 traumatised the nation, security has not dominated the debate.

Manuel Valls, the former prime minister who lost to Mr Hamon in a landslide in Sunday's Socialist primary runoff, was unable to capitalise on his hardline response to the terror threat.

A state of emergency has been renewed several times - each time raising red flags on the left - since it was first imposed after the Nov 2015 attacks in Paris.

AFP

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