Macron knows that inflation is Le Pen’s best weapon

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“Google it, mate” – was the response from an Australian politician who bristled at a reporter who tested him on salary data, earning laughs as he berated such “gotcha” questions.

The scene has echoes in the French presidential poll, due later this month, which saw Emmanuel Macron rush to secure votes to widen his lead against far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen. His current average poll lead of 53% is slim and seems at odds with his economic background – not to mention his rival’s toxic political past.

Shouldn’t the numbers speak for themselves? Data shows that France is making progress in job creation, with an unemployment rate at its lowest in 15 years and a growth rate higher than that of Germany. Purchasing power – the main concern of French voters – has increased under Macron more than his two most recent predecessors.

This comes on top of a pandemic that has seen Macron adopt a “whatever it takes” policy to protect people’s jobs in a country that already ranked among the most equal in the developed world (in terms of income). While Macron’s campaign promises involve more spending, independent think tank Institut Montaigne ranks Le Pen’s program as twice as expensive and impossible to implement without jeopardizing the country’s finances and its sovereignty.

Yet it was Le Pen’s focus on inflation – alongside far-left instigator Jean-Luc Melenchon, who narrowly missed the second round – that resonated with workers, those under 60 and those who had less money on hand at the end of the month. Le Pen campaigned on purchasing power, promising tax cuts on energy and essential goods, and she called Macron – whose main demographic is the over-60s – out of touch.

Even in areas where the unemployment rate has fallen, such as former mining centers, Le Pen’s message has got through. Residents of the northern city of Lens, where she won a majority in 2017 and beat Macron in the first round on Sunday, told Bloomberg News that the far right is occupying space once occupied by the left. The rising cost of gas, child care and transportation is what dominates, even as employment increases.

A fact checker might point out that France’s inflation rate of 5.1% is lower than many of its neighbours, thanks in part to Macron’s measures such as donations of 100 euros ($109) for 38 million people and a cap on gas and electricity prices. Whatever the relative advantage, that hasn’t stopped a good chunk of Melenchon voters – 28% of them, according to one poll – leaning towards voting for Le Pen, who is scrambling to court the extreme left shaking off what politicians used to do. slyly call the magic money tree.

Of course, while a larger share of Melenchon voters say they will vote for Macron, the result is an election vulnerable to political doublethink: a far-right candidate linked to Vladimir Putin, running a left-wing campaign with budgetary gifts to appease the financial aftermath of Putin’s war. It’s an extension of the anti-establishment mindset behind the 2018 and 2019 yellow vest protests against fuel taxes, which united supporters of Melenchon and Le Pen. Neither left, nor right, nor holder.

If Macron is to widen his lead against Le Pen, he will need an offensive strategy on the economy that goes beyond exposing Le Pen’s far-right roots. Even as her plans threaten to blast European integration and politicians on both sides of the aisle call for a ‘republican front’ against her, polls show she has a more persuasive public image on power. purchase that Macron.

He has already rightly begun to water down one of his main promises – to raise the retirement age to 65 – which gave Le Pen an easy opening to veer left. Yet he still risks stepping on rakes as those around him offer ever more complex concessions around a patently unpopular — and unlikely — pension reform.

French citizens want protection, not reform. If Macron wants to appeal to more left-leaning voters, he can send clearer messages about taxes, pensions and the state of future spending, including inflation-fighting measures that haven’t been put in place. only temporarily. With public opinion in an unstable state, the risk of another shaking of the magic money tree by Le Pen is real.

The story offers some parallels, suggest analysts Bruno Tertrais and Joseph de Weck. In 1981, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing lost to socialist François Mitterrand in the second round despite winning the first; in times of war and inflation, the French are less influenced by warnings about the risks of price controls or Russian influence. Political cynicism has also seen voters switch allegiance from right to left.

It’s a tight race. Inflation is Le Pen’s best friend. If Macron is not careful, he could become his own worst enemy.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Germany must cut Russian gas sooner, not later: Chris Bryant

• France shows that each system is rigged in its own way: John Authers

• The West must save globalization: Micklethwait and Wooldridge

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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