PARIS — Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to fix the French economy, boost growth and create jobs is a race against time.
But the French president may not reap the rewards from one of the biggest tasks he has set out to accomplish during his first term in office.
As a participant in our Global Policy Lab brainstorm noted last week, the French unemployment rate has only fallen below 7 percent once in the last 30 years — in the first quarter of 2008, just a few months before the financial crisis hit full force.
The country suffers from severe so-called structural unemployment — people unlikely to get jobs in the absence of a deep overhaul of the way the economy is structured — no matter how strong a recovery.
Macron warned throughout his campaign that his performance should be judged over time. But even the time he has left in his term — four-and-a-half years — may not be enough for him to produce decisive results on which he can campaign for reelection.
The emphasis put on math in education, as early as primary school, allows the country to train top-notch engineers and managers.
As a result, the French president is racing on two tracks. He’s looking for measures that can produce immediate results (and political gains) but also the long-term reform on which his legacy will depend.
Ahead of the next election, he can goose the economy with short-term measures that have immediate impact — like cuts to payroll taxes — to reassure business that he will pursue a predictable pro-growth policy. But Macron’s most important, long-lasting economic reform will have a much more extended gestation period — with little political upside in the short term.
Overhauling the country’s education system will require a lot of energy, not least because it goes to the heart of some of France’s ingrained cultural problems.
France is characterized by a big educational chasm. The emphasis put on math in education, as early as primary school, allows the country to train top-notch engineers and managers. The math wizards have turned from engineers to bankers in the last 20 years, and the City of London is peopled with French financial whiz kids.
Macron during a visit to a school in Forbach, Eastern France | Pool photo by Philippe Wojazer/EFE via EPA
As for business schools, France occupies three slots in the Financial Times’ top 10 ranking of the best executive MBAs. German business schools, on the other hand, are nowhere to be seen — but who needs business schools when your businesses are strong enough as they are?
Last and increasingly least, France has long been known for training top-echelon civil servants — some of whom have ended up managing big world organizations like the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization. But the country’s civil service isn’t what it used to be, and even the once-famed ENA (École Nationale d’Administration) is now running into trouble recruiting the best and the brightest.
France’s higher education problem is that, as another participant in our roundtable discussion noted, its system “sometimes trains engineers only to see them go work abroad.” That wouldn’t be a problem in itself if the movement went both ways and skilled specialists came to work in France as well. Since France’s top companies in recent years have tended to relocate abroad, this has become less likely.
Below the top-level math and business whiz kids, the general skill level of the working population, however, drops abruptly — as confirmed year after year by the regular OECD survey on adult skills.
Those who fall out of the education system have trouble ever entering the workforce. And people with low qualifications tend to lose jobs faster during downturns, and remain longer on the welfare rolls.
This French disease is well documented. Macron stands out less for the ideas he promotes than for his apparent decisiveness in wanting to implement them. “It’s no longer possible to know at age 20 what one will do at 50,” his campaign platform proclaimed, arguing that workers should receive the right to “whole-life” training, helping them to adapt to a job market increasingly characterized by mobility.
Macron’s idea is to take some of the training powers away from companies to empower workers.
Even if Macron implements the long list of measures he advocates, he will be faced with the daunting task of fighting some of France’s deep-rooted archaisms. Take the modest idea of shaking up the inefficient vocational training system — where some 70,000 players fight over a €30 billion-a-year business in total opacity, allowing for a healthy dose of fraud.
The mere idea of setting up a system to evaluate and rank the training organisms — as is routinely done in Germany — is bound to trigger a turf war between competing lobbies.
Macron delivers a speech on security | Philippe Wojazer/EFE via EPA
Macron’s idea is to take some of the training powers away from companies to empower workers, who will have to take some responsibility for their own so-called permanent education. The long overdue reform has been welcomed by independent experts.
Mathilde Lemoine, an economist, insisted recently in a Figaro interview that the French system had put much too much emphasis on training people for specific jobs and not competences. That turned into a major obstacle to workers’ mobility, she argued.
Lemoine is the co-author of a report on the matter, published and presented to the government in 2010. Seven years later, she has some reason to note: “Precious time has been wasted.”
Macron will be judged in no small part on whether he can stop time from slipping away.
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