Many people saw Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 as a watershed moment in French politics and a sign of renewal in the French political landscape. Macron, who was elected on a passionately pro-European platform, promised to introduce far-reaching reforms that would make France an innovative hub, more economically sound and a continued trusted ally in the world. But how well has Macron done over the past five years?
From the Yellow Vest protests to the Covid-19 crisis, Macron has been faced with major and largely unforeseen events that have hindered the implementation of new spending measures and complicated his term in office. For example, the government introduced the France Relance plan – a set of fiscal measures to support French industry – at the height of the first wave of Covid-19 in the summer of 2020. The plan included a €10 billion annual tax reduction on production over a two-year timeframe. The government also introduced mechanisms and loans to support industrial activity: for example, it adopted a fourth investment plan, worth €20 billion, to invest in strategic industries. At the height of Covid-19, these measures, although costly, made France one of Europe’s economies least affected by the crisis.
Macron’s five-year tenure has also been good for the labour market. The figures speak for themselves: the unemployment rate was 7.4% in the 4th quarter of 2021, the lowest in 15 years, and 2021 saw the creation of nearly one million new businesses – a record. The number of unicorns – start-ups valued at over $1 billion – has risen sharply in recent years, reaching 26 in 2022.
In order to stimulate economic activity, the government has also progressively reduced taxes for both companies and households. By reducing corporation tax from 33% to 25%, France has become more attractive to investment. It also reduced taxes on production – whose proceeds are used to fund local government – which has improved France’s competitiveness. Another decisive measure was the decision to turn the tax concession for competitiveness and employment (also known as “CICE”) into a permanent tax cut in 2019. Households have also seen their compulsory levies decrease, in particular thanks to the cut in housing tax, which was one of Macron’s central pledges during his 2017 campaign.
But not all of Macron’s pledges have been met. To reduce public expenditure, Macron had promised to reduce the size of the public sector by cutting at least 120,000 civil service jobs: in the end, the number of civil servants remained roughly the same. What’s more, the number of contracts between the state and consulting firms doubled between 2018 and 2021, reaching a value of more than €1 billion in 2021 – something Macron has been criticised for during the campaign. He was also forced to abandon pension reform, another key measure of his 2017 electoral programme, after facing the major social revolt of the Yellow Vests. Housing policy is another area where the results of reforms were not as ambitious as Macron had hoped. The President failed to create a “supply shock”; the number of new buildings, including student housing, is at a historic low. With regard to education, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey – a worldwide OECD study measuring school pupils’ skills and overall performance – highlights that France’s education system is still one of the most unequal among OECD countries.
Perhaps the greatest puzzle, however, is what Macron did and did not do on environmental issues: although the 2019 energy-climate law set France on a clear trajectory for carbon neutrality by 2050, the 2018 Yellow Vests protest and the freezing of the carbon tax significantly slowed the phase-out of fossil fuels and investment in renewable energies in France.
President Macron has benefited from increased visibility in recent weeks due to his role in managing the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. His reputation as an international leader gives him a definite advantage in the current presidential campaign – yet it won’t be the only basis on which French voters will judge him. The last five years were rich in events, reforms, support and lessons: we will need to wait and see how the French judge Emmanuel Macron’s domestic record, which was positive in some respects, but more mixed in others.