French President Emmanuel Macron is not a man with a modest vision. “I will convince our compatriots that France’s power is not in decline, but that we are at the dawn of an extraordinary renaissance,” he told the country at his inauguration.
Part of that renaissance involves rebooting the French economy and tackling a chronic unemployment problem. While the joblessness rate of 8.9% is the country’s lowest since 2009, it’s still far higher than the OECD average of 5.5%. The problem is not simply a lack of jobs. Many workers don’t have the skills employers need, with hundreds of thousands of positions left vacant last year. “Our huge unemployment is mainly non-skilled,” said Macron’s social policy advisor, Pierre-André Imbert, at a talk at London’s Resolution Foundation.
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Macron is taking this skills deficit seriously, with a range of programs aimed at improving the prospects of the least qualified. But there’s a problem: the public still sees him as a man acting not for the sake of the worst-off, but simply on behalf of the wealthy elite.
Two faces of reform
Macron is tackling the skills problem on several fronts. He wants to increase the number of apprenticeships available in France. The government is spending €15bn on training schemes for the unemployed. And it has set up personal activity accounts which let workers spend between €500 and €800 a year on vocational training.
The government is also giving more support to the least-qualified earlier on. One of the first policies it implemented was to cut the size of thousands of classes in schools in deprived areas, from 25 students down to just 12. “We have to tackle inequality at its root,” said Imbert, He added that now focus will turn to older pupils who fail their exams — “a major waste” — with a new scheme to help struggling students transition from high school to university.
This public investment in skills and education is a central pillar of Macron’s vision for labour market reform, Imbert said. It’s the other side of more widely-known changes aimed at boosting private investment and business growth through fewer top-down regulations, reduced worker protections and significant tax cuts for the wealthy.
“You’ve got a narrative beginning to take hold in France that this is a president acting on behalf of the rich”
But some stand to lose from the pro-business side of his platform — transport workers with highly prized and protected public sector jobs are striking, for example. The problem for Macron is that it’s these reforms that are capturing the public attention, and not the efforts to close the skills gap.
According to a recent opinion poll, 72% of French people perceive Macron as a “president of the rich,” whose policies are more right- than left-wing.
“What you’ve got is a narrative beginning to take hold in France that this is a president acting on behalf of the rich,” said Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief at The Economist, at the talk.
The early tax reforms have contributed to that perception. “But it’s also to do with a perception of what constitutes social policy,” she added: investments in training and education are seen less as solutions to social problems of inequality and unemployment, and more as benefits for individuals’ personal development.
Communicating a vision
The problem Macron’s government faces is that any benefits for the poorest that do result from better school support and training for adults will take significant time — new qualifications aren’t instant, and primary school investments won’t show for years — while corporations and the wealthy are reaping rewards from tax cuts straight away.
And this challenge — of convincing people that investments in skills and tax cuts for business are both part of a coherent vision to help the unemployed — could face other governments, too.
The skills deficit exists in most industrialised countries: education everywhere is failing to keep pace with rapid changes to the workplace. In a recent McKinsey survey of nine countries, 40% of employers said lack of skills was the main reason for entry-level job vacancies. To reduce low-skilled unemployment, countries from Ireland to Greece will need to simultaneously support the least qualified and encourage private investment.
Imbert admitted that the French government may need to focus more on communicating its vision for “inclusive growth.” Just 5% of those earning less than €1250 a month say they’re satisfied with the president, compared to 38% of those earning more than €6000.
Whether the government does manage to convince the people that Macron is not just acting for the rich will hold important lessons for others setting out to reform their economies for a very different future of work.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet)