France’s Welfare State Kept Macron in Power
The French still enjoy a comparably solid social safety net. Looking closely at Emmanuel Macron's victory, it was this welfare state that helped him get reelected. And it makes the upcoming pension reform all the more challenging.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Once more, Europe survives. France did not experience a Brexit or Trump moment on April 24.
Rather, French President Emmanuel Macron won a second term with a solid 17-point lead. Marine Le Pen failed in her third attempt at the presidency. And if the far-right candidate ever had a shot at winning, it was now. Facing-off a haughty incumbent, Le Pen hoped to finally surpass her voter potential by capitalizing on the “everything but Macron” reflex. But it was not to be.
There are many reasons why Le Pen lost once more. One is Macron’s favorable economic track record. The French might complain about the country’s déclassement, but recent polls show that they are almost as happy about their individual economic situation and job prospects as the Germans. Another is that the war in Ukraine hurt Le Pen due to her close association with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Also, Le Pen might have succeeded in softening the image of her party by ditching “Frexit” and barely talking about foreigners and Islam. But the TV debate confirmed that she remained as incompetent as five years ago.
Macron’s Trump Card: Old Voters
Yet, history shows that populists can win votes even in economically “good “times, that foreign policy is a secondary theme for voters at most, and that the perceived incompetence of a politician by elites does not necessarily hurt in the polling booth. Instead, post-election surveys show that the biggest trump card Macron had up his sleeve was the welfare state.
In 2016, the Brexit referendum was won, and Donald Trump got elected to the White House, by galvanizing the votes of the old and of the less well-off. Often, it was a combination of both. Only 40 percent of British voters aged 65 and older voted Remain. Only 45 percent of the Americans older than 65 voted for Hillary Clinton. In aging societies the old are the most important voter group. This is also because they are very reliable in terms of turnout. The link between income level and the Trump and Brexit votes has been equally clear.
But Macron won the second round precisely because he fared best among the old and even got solid results among the less well-off. Surveys show that 68 percent of French pensioners opted for Macron. In the category of law-wage earners making less than €1,250 per month Macron fared worse than Le Pen, but still got 44 percent of the vote.
How do we explain this? Of course, among older voters the anti-Le Pen reflex is stronger. They remember that the Le Pen family originates from the same far-right that supported Vichy France in World War II and fought against Algerian independence in the 1960s.
But the other answer explaining Macron’s second-round result among the old and the less privileged is France’s welfare state.
A Solid Safety Net
Macron is often decried as a “neoliberal” by leftist critics. Indeed, his economic policy includes some supply-side elements, such as tax cuts on capital and the rich and a loosening of labor laws. But by cutting payroll taxes, Macron has increased the net minimum wage by more than his two predecessors. Most importantly, he has hardly touched the level of social transfers. Macron initially wanted to axe social spending, but the fierce resistance to the cuts to social housing transfers at the beginning of his first term quickly disabused him of the idea.
France’s welfare state thus continues to protect the French much better from hardship than in most European countries and the United States. “Only” 4.4 percent of the French aged 66 years and older are living below the poverty line, defined as half the median household income of the total population. This compares to 23 percent in the US and 15.5 percent in the United Kingdom.
Furthemore, those in the working population on low incomes aren’t doing as badly in relative terms. In France, 8.5 percent of those aged 18 to 65 live below the poverty line compared to 15.7 percent in the US and 11 percent in the UK.
When German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck laid the foundations of the welfare state at the end of the 19th century by creating the world’s first large-scale pension insurance in 1889, the master of Realpolitik argued: “Whoever has a pension for his old age is much happier and much easier to handle than someone who does not have this perspective.” Bismarck was by no means a Social Democrat, quite the contrary. But he saw the welfare state as an instrument to calm social tensions and keep the left-wing revolutionaries at bay.
In France, this welfare state is still very much alive. Ensuring that the old and the less well-off still have a good life, at least compared to their peers in the US and the UK, is what prevented France from going down the road of Brexit and Trump. The welfare state remains the most effective defense against populists. This is why Macron’s upcoming pension reform must not only solve the demographic problem but strive for a large degree of social acceptance.
Joseph de Weck is the author of the (German-langue) book Emmanuel Macron: Der revolutionäre Präsident and a Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.