Who will take up residence in the Élysée Palace? The French are choosing their next president in a two-step process, with a first-round election on April 23 and a runoff on May 7. The results of the vote in one of Europe's most populous and economically important nations will send a signal to the entire continent. We take a look at the country's economic and social situation and its global ties.
With some 67 million inhabitants, France is the second most populous country in Europe after Germany and one of the continent's leading economic powers. The country's president is the chief of state. François Hollande of the leftist Socialist Party has held the post since May 2012, but is not running for reelection. With that, the way is clear for the country to elect his successor.
Eleven politicians are vying to become president. By tradition, an initial election is held followed by a runoff. Current surveys suggest that either Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen have the best chance of becoming France's next head of state. Macron, the country's economics minister until last August, is the candidate of the centrist Onward! (En Marche!) party, which he founded only last year. Le Pen leads the ticket for the National Front, the right-wing party that has occasionally espoused extremist views. The conservative Republicans, whose candidates have repeatedly been elected president, have nominated former Prime Minister François Fillon. The ruling Socialist Party has put forward former Education Minister Benoît Hamon. Another viable candidate is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an independent who has advanced a number of far-left views.
What are social and economic conditions like in France in the run-up to the vote? Here we present some facts and figures.
High youth unemployment has become entrenched
France is one of Europe's largest and economically most important countries. Recently, French automaker Groupe PSA acquired German carmaker Opel, a deal that received extensive media coverage. Overall, however, the French economy has been limping along for quite some time now – with negative consequences for the country, as detailed in our Social Justice Index and in our Sustainable Governance Indicators. The studies examined all 28 EU member states based on data from 2014 and 2015.
As the figures show, France has not yet recovered from the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. With an employment rate of 64 percent in 2015, it ranked only 17th out of the 28 EU nations. Its unemployment rate in 2015 was also one of Europe's highest, at 10.4 percent (2008: 7 percent). Only seven European countries had a higher rate. In terms of long-term unemployment, France was one of the EU's mid-tier nations, at 4.6 percent.
For a major economic power like France, the youth unemployment rate is extremely high. In 2015, 24.7 percent of the country's young people had no job (2008: 18 percent). Here, too, only seven EU countries were worse off. In comparison, in the Netherlands and Germany, which have held or will hold national elections this year, the unemployment rate among young people is 11.3 and 7.2 percent, respectively.
And even people in France who do find work often face an uncertain future, since these days the majority of workers who are hired are only given temporary, fixed-term work contracts. Young people, above all, inch their way from one fixed-term contract to the next.
To that extent, whoever becomes president will face an enormous challenge, namely restarting the economy and achieving a significant reduction in unemployment. How do the presidential candidates intend to do that? We recently analyzed their economic platforms.
French welfare state still does a relatively good job of preventing poverty
France has a relatively well-developed welfare state. Its many child-care centers and its laws guaranteeing parental leave make France a European leader when it comes to family policy. The country's current programs also do a good job of preventing and alleviating poverty.
Although many people in France are poor or at risk of poverty, the French state has been relatively effective in combating poverty. In 2015, 17.7 percent of the French population was at risk of poverty, the fifth lowest level in the EU. Moreover, at 9.3 percent, France had the third lowest rate of elderly poverty in Europe – much lower than Germany (17 percent). At 21 percent, it also had the eighth lowest level of child and youth poverty.
In absolute terms, however, that rate is high and young people in France are currently more at risk of poverty than the country's seniors. That, coupled with the high unemployment rate, could cause poverty to spike in the future. Others at risk of poverty include single-parent households, large families and people of non-French heritage. It is also not clear if France's poverty-fighting efforts will remain as effective in the future, since the French welfare state is very cost intensive.
In almost no other EU country is access to education so dependent on social and ethnic background
Whether young people in France get a good primary and secondary education and have the chance to attend university still depends far too much on their social and ethnic background. Children from working-class and immigrant families are particularly disadvantaged. And even though this is true in many EU countries, the situation in France is particularly problematic. Above all, access to the country's universities and grande écoles, its elite institutions of higher education, is more restrictive than in almost any other EU member state. Children from low-income migrant families rarely get a chance to get ahead.
Integration has reached a dead end
France has a long history of immigration. Some 30 percent of the country's citizens are of non-French heritage, and their ancestors came mostly from former French colonies in Africa, Asia and South America, or from Spain and Portugal. Yet the principle of égalité, by which everyone should be treated equally regardless of heritage or religion, has lost its ability to bring the country together. In many cases France has not succeeded in fully integrating the second and third generations of immigrants. The inflexible educational system is leaving far too many young people of non-French heritage behind. The result is often a vicious circle: The lack of a solid education keeps them from finding a job; that, in turn, limits their future prospects.
Massive public debt and high taxes are also a burden
In addition to high unemployment, the rigid educational system and the considerable challenges relating to social integration, other crucial issues are weighing on the country – namely, the high level of public debt and the government deficit which has grown steadily in recent decades. Tax rates in France are also high. Despite that, tax revenues do not cover government expenditures. It is therefore unsurprising that, in terms of government budgets and tax policies, France is one of the poorest performing nations in Europe. Instead of reforms that would strategically restructure the country's tax system, short-term fixes and policies favoring individual groups have increasingly been implemented.
Most of the French fear globalization and its impacts
As a former colonial power in Africa, Asia and the Americas, France has long been globally oriented and is today one of the world’s leading trading nations. In Europe, the French have worked particularly closely on political and economic issues since the 1950s with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Germany is France's most important European trading partner by far. The French have participated in all the key steps taken to create today's European Union. For example, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 resulted from a proposal made by French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. France was also one of the original signatories to the Treaty of Rome, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Nevertheless, the majority of the French are fearful of global trends. As our Europe wide survey "eupinions" shows, 54 percent of people in France consider globalization and its impacts threatening. This makes the French one of the most skeptical nations in the EU when it comes to global interdependencies.
Among all the voters in France, those who support the National Front are by far the most distrustful of globalization, with 76 percent saying they believe it is a threat. It therefore comes as no surprise that the party's candidate, Marine Le Pen, has run a campaign that often resorts to Islamophobic statements, calls to take a hard line against immigrants and anti-European rhetoric. The National Front supports giving up the euro and reintroducing the franc. It also wants to leave the EU, the Schengen Area and NATO and to put "France first." Following Brexit, the party now dreams of bringing about a Frexit.
France has stronger global ties than Germany
Our current globalization report examined the degree to which countries developed global economic and political ties between 1990 and 2014. The findings and a Factsheet about France with datas from the report show that the country has been very successful and is today more "globally anchored" than either Germany or the United States. That means its real gross domestic product is €650 higher per person per year than would be the case had globalization not taken place. On average, French consumers have thus benefitted from their country's global connections – something that should give the electorate pause for thought as it goes to the polls.