European Affairs

The Economic Underpinnings of French Discontent     Print Email

paul horneFrench public reaction to the jihadist massacre in Paris on Black Friday, November 13th , as well as growing frustration with the political establishment’s inability to energize the economy and job creation, contributed to the Front National’s (FN) strong showing in the first round of regional elections on December 6th. Based on a 50% participation rate in the regions, recently consolidated from 21 to 13 by the Socialist government, the FN could technically claim to be France’s largest political party. It won 28% of the vote, vs. 27% for the center-right Republicans and 23% for the governing Socialist Party, its lowest score in many years.

The FN came in first in six of the 13 regions. In the second round next Sunday (Dec. 13), more voters are expected to turn out and block further FN progress. Nevertheless, the party expertly led by Marine Le Pen, is expected to win the Nord-Pas de Calais region in the north and Provence Cote-d’Azur in the south. It could emerge as the second largest party in several other regions. While regional level government, created in 1986, deals essentially with infrastructure and tourism, and is less important than the national government and the départments, control of a regional government boosts that party’s ability to develop grass roots support and consolidate its electoral base. This is very important in view of the presidential election in April 2017 and legislative elections months afterward.

The FN appears to be gaining significant local support from the once communist and socialist working left and rightwing workers, as well as a growing share of the petite bourgeoisie. This is the fifth election since early 2014 in which the FN has gained at the municipal, European Parliament, senatorial and departmental levels. The extreme right’s gains yesterday are all the more striking since the Socialist Party had controlled 20 of the 21 regions. The PS’ sharp decline reflects considerable resentment of President Hollande’s less-than-dynamic economic, taxation and labor market policies since being elected in 2012.

French political commentary the morning after the first round was striking for the absence of criticism of today’s and previous governments’ failure to resolve some of the economic constraints that feed the frustration and anger that produces more votes for the FN’s simplistic, populist and mostly negative approach. The party urges leaving the Euro Zone, watering down the European Union, drastically tightening civil rights and border security and controlling religious and ethnic minorities in France.

A few charts show some of the principal weak points of France’s economy that contribute to the political drift rightward of French voters.

The real GDP growth rate (blue line, right-hand scale) has lagged behind that of the EU (dotted line, right-hand scale), largely as a result of declining capital spending and sluggish consumption growth.


French public spending, at 57% of GDP (columns with left-hand scale), remains one of the highest in the EU , which averages 49% (line with right-hand scale).

France’s 10.6% unemployment rate has trended sharply upward from its 2008 low of 7.2% (dotted line, right-hand scale), and diverged from the downward trend of the Euro Zone from a peak of 12.1% (with austerian policies) in 2013 to 10.7% today. France’s long-term unemployment rate has climbed steadily to 4.4% (blue line, left-hand scale), exacerbating underlying resentment and loss of job skills.


French productivity (real value of output produced by a unit of labor during a given period, seasonally adjusted, 2005 = 100) has declined from its 2013 peak, in part because of slower economic growth and weak investment spending.

Capital spending (measured in billions of euro in gross fixed capital formation) has declined from its 2008 high, a trend that accelerated during President Hollande’s first several years. It has revived slightly with Prime Minister Valls’ more pro-business policies.


The psychological and political impact of these negative economic and fiscal trends is compounded by recent terrorist attacks and the attendant fear that it could happen again, as well as by the flood of refugees coming to Europe from war zones and failed states to the East and South. These elements add to popular discontent and to the tendency to seek simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Paul Horne is a member of the Board of Advisors of European Affairs

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