The economic programs of the French candidates are the key to the election

PARIS – As President Emmanuel Macron swarmed among crowds during a campaign halt in northern France last week, an elderly voter stood up to protest one of his most unpopular economic proposals: raising the retirement age from 62 65 years old to finance France’s national pension system.

“Retirement at 65, no, no!” Cried the woman, digging a finger into Mr. Macron’s chest as he tried to calm her. The stormy exchange was captured by a camera. Two hours later, he withdrew, saying he would consider changing the age to 64. “I do not want to divide the country,” he said on French television.

Mr Macron’s address on a key element of his economic platform in an industrial region supporting far-right brandman Marin Le Pen ahead of next week’s French presidential election was a reminder of the social disaster that has plagued voters. He and Mrs Le Pen have sharply different views on how to deal with these concerns.

Like they cross the country in the whirlwind of a last-minute campaign, their run-off will depend largely on perceptions of the economy. Concerns about growing economic insecurity and rising living costs amid the aftermath of Russia’s war against Ukraine have become major issues in the race, ahead of security and immigration.

Ms Le Pen won by a narrow margin in last week’s round of voting in places that lost jobs due to deindustrialisation, where she found a ready audience for her promises to boost purchasing power, create employment through “smart” protectionism and shield France from European policies that have expanded globalization.

Although Macron is still expected to win a tough race, workers in the troubled blue-collar bastions may be a problem. Despite a strong recovery in France from the Covid blockade – the economy is now growing at around 7 per cent and unemployment has fallen to a 10-year low of 7.4 per cent – many believe inequality has widened rather than narrowed, as he promised. five years since Mr Macron took office.

After the traditional left and right parties in France broke up in the first round of voting, both candidates are struggling to lure the undecided and voters who gravitate to their opponents – especially far-left favorite Jean-Luc Melenchon – largely by reworking the main plans for their economic programs to attract those struggling to cope.

Pensions are an example. Mr Macron is working to recalibrate his image as a president who prefers the wealthy classes of France, the business establishment and white-collar voters, while undertaking major overhauls of the economy to boost competitiveness.

In 2019, he was forced to put aside his plans to raise the retirement age to 65 after noisy national strikes closed much of France. He sought to streamline France’s complex system of public and private pension schemes into a state-run plan to cover a deficit of 18 billion euros, or about $ 19 billion.

Following his confrontation in northern France last week, Mr Macron insisted that he would continue to gradually reduce the retirement age – by four months a year, starting next year – but that he was ready to discuss easing the plan in its later stages. .

“This is not dogma,” he told politics. “I have to listen to what people say to me.”

Ms Le Pen accused Macron of engaging in a policy of “social ruin” and of blowing with the wind to attract votes, although he also changed gears after the protectionist economic platform he developed five years ago scared business . She has abandoned plans to leave the European Union and the eurozone.

Today, Ms Le Pen supports maintaining the current retirement age of 62, abandoning previous attempts to reduce it to 60 – although some workers engaged in intensive manual labor such as construction may retire at a lower age.

While Ms. Le Pen sought to rename her far-right National Rally party a kinder, gentler party than the one she led in 2017, albeit with a clear anti-immigrant message, she focused on economic issues close to blue collar voters’ hearts.

She faced one of the campaign’s biggest problems: a jump in the cost of living.

While Mr Macron was trying to mediate a ceasefire in Ukraine, Ms Le Pen was visiting cities and rural areas across France, promising increased subsidies for vulnerable households.

She promised a 10% increase in the minimum wage in France of 1,603 euros. It also promises to reduce sales taxes to 5.5 percent from 20 percent for fuel, oil, gas and electricity and reduce them entirely by 100 “basic” goods. Workers under the age of 30 will be exempt from income tax, and young couples will receive interest-free housing loans.

Her policy in the first place in France extends even further: to offset the increased costs of social programs, she said she would reduce billions in social costs for “foreigners”.

She also promised to create jobs and reindustrialize the country by prioritizing French government procurement companies to foreign investors and hanging a number of expensive tax incentives to encourage French companies that have branched out abroad to return to France.

Although she has abandoned talks on the so-called Frexit – France’s exit from the European Union – some of her proposals to protect the economy would be essentially that, including a promise to ignore some European Union laws, including on internal free trade. She said she would withhold some French payments to the bloc.

Mr Macron called such promises “pure fantasy” and suggested maintaining many of his pro-business policies with modifications.

Promising to attract jobs and investment, under his supervision, foreign companies have poured billions of euros into industrial projects and research and development, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs, many in technology start-ups, in a country that has not easily embraced change.

At the same time, he faces the challenge of rejecting the image of a ousted president whose policies have benefited the wealthiest. Its abolition of the wealth tax and the introduction of a 30% flat tax on capital gains has mainly increased the incomes of the richest by 0.1% and increased the distribution of dividends, according to the government’s own analysis.

After the growing wealth divide helped kick-start the yellow vest movement in 2019, taking struggling working-class people to the streets, Mr Macron raised the minimum wage and made it easier for companies to hire workers. “Purchasing power bonuses” of up to 3,000 euros a year without taxes, a policy he promised to step up.

As inflation has risen recently, Mr Macron has also authorized billions of euros in subsidies for energy bills and the petrol station, and has promised to link pension payments to inflation this summer. He swore new tax breaks for both households and businesses.

Its economic platform also aims at “full employment”, in part by continuing a series of reforms in favor of business that continue to attract the support of France’s largest employers’ organization, Medef.

“Emmanuel Macron’s program is the most conducive to ensuring economic growth and employment,” the group said last week, adding that Ms. Le Pen’s platform “will bring the country to a standstill compared to its neighbors and set it aside.” of the European Union. “

Despite all the differences, the promises made by Mr Macron and Mrs Le Pen have one thing in common: more public spending and less savings. The Institut Montaigne, a French economic think tank, estimates that Macron’s economic plan will exacerbate the public deficit by € 44 billion, while Ms Le Pen’s will increase it by € 102 billion.

“These changes are significant enough to suggest that some of their proposals cannot be implemented – unless they introduce austerity measures that they are not talking about,” said Victor Poirier, director of publications at the Institut Montaigne.

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