In France, Inflation Tightens Race Between Macron and Far-Right Le Pen

9 avril 2022

Marine Le Pen is closing in on President Emmanuel Macron as rising prices hit voters’ pocketbooks ahead of elections Sunday

PARIS—Far-right leader Marine Le Pen is tapping public frustration over energy and food prices to close in on French President Emmanuel Macron before voters head to the polls Sunday, a sign of how the war in Ukraine is rippling across Europe’s economic and political landscape.

In an attempt to quell public discontent, Mr. Macron has ordered a cap on electricity and natural-gas prices. He has also instituted a rebate on fuel and offered checks to low-income households to help them buy essentials.

The $28 billion in measures, however, haven’t stopped Ms. Le Pen or far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon from climbing in the polls ahead of the first round of the presidential election on April 10. Their message: The Macron government isn’t doing enough to soften the blow of soaring prices.

“I’ll put money back in your pockets,” said Ms. Le Pen, who is proposing to slash taxes on energy and other essentials and give businesses incentives to raise the lowest salaries.

The inflationary shock has shifted the focus of France’s election to an area where Mr. Macron is particularly vulnerable. Ever since the yellow-vest protests swept France four years ago, fueled by public anger over high fuel taxes and low wages, Mr. Macron has faced criticism that he is out of touch with the everyday hardships of working- and middle-class French, particularly in rural areas where driving is necessary and now very expensive.

Now Mr. Macron finds himself locked in an unexpectedly tight race with Ms. Le Pen. A poll released Friday by French pollster Elabe has her garnering 25% of the vote in the first round of the elections on Sunday, up from 15% in early March. Mr. Macron is polling at 26%, compared with 33.5% a month ago. 

The poll has Mr. Macron defeating Ms. Le Pen by 2 percentage points in the April 24 runoff—within the margin of error—compared with the 32-point margin of victory he notched in 2017. A recent Elabe survey found that 57% of respondents consider purchasing power their top concern in the election, ahead of health, security and employment.

Mr. Macron’s vulnerability shows how the war in Ukraine—and its inflationary ripple effects—is testing Europe’s political establishment. Protests are bubbling up across the continent, and governments are slashing taxes and doling out billions to partially offset rising energy bills on businesses and households.

The German government is handing out a one-off energy allowance of 300 euros, equivalent to roughly $326, to workers who pay income taxes and a family bonus of €100 per child, which doubles for low-income families. The Spanish government said last month that it would extend tax cuts on energy bills, while Italy has cut the price of petrol and diesel by 25 cents per liter.

Meanwhile, eurozone inflation hit a record for the fifth straight month in March, fueled in part by worries over how the Ukraine war would affect global supplies of fuel and wheat.

Capping prices and offering subsidies to consumers won’t provide a lasting solution to a problem driven by geopolitical forces that are beyond European governments’ immediate control, officials say. Mr. Macron ordered France’s state-controlled electric company, EDF, to limit wholesale-power price increases to 4%, but he is wary of intervening in the market for long. The government has pledged to recapitalize EDF to compensate the company for selling electricity at below-market rates.

“The government is protecting the consumer, but it’s the taxpayer who pays,” Mr. Macron said.

European efforts to shift away from Russian gas are raising energy bills further by forcing the region to rely more on expensive liquefied natural gas imported by tanker from the U.S. and the Middle East. Europe is accelerating plans to cut demand for gas—Mr. Macron took an early step by ordering an end to subsidies for gas heaters in France—but those investments will likely take years to make a big dent in prices.

Immediately following Russia’s invasion, Mr. Macron built a double-digit lead in polls, with many voters gravitating toward him as a steady hand in wartime.

As holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, he shepherded Western sanctions that aimed to cut Russia off from the global financial system without inflicting serious damage on the European economy. That meant allowing Moscow to continue making oil-and-gas deliveries that are crucial to the continent. The EU relies on Russia for around 45% of its natural-gas imports, nearly half of its coal imports and a quarter of its imported oil.

“Mr. Macron has shown that he can deal with crisis situations,” said Jean-Marie Revillot, a 65-year-old nurse, who recently retired. “What Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Mélenchon promise is unrealistic. They are just riding a wave of people’s problems,” he added.

Mr. Macron, however, is coming under new pressure to sanction Russian energy supplies following the discovery of hundreds of dead civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, and other towns near Kyiv whom Western governments say the Russian military killed. Mr. Macron said this week that the bloc should sanction Russian oil and coal, an idea Ms. Le Pen quickly criticized.

“I clearly make the choice to defend our businesses, our jobs and the purchasing power of the French,” she said Tuesday.

Ms. Le Pen is drawing support in rural regions where record prices for gasoline and diesel are squeezing households. Sylvain Bersinger, an economist at consulting firm Asteres in Paris, said rural households have suffered a double blow: They have lower incomes, and they drive more often because of limited public transportation.

Hélène Weissgerber, a 54-year-old home aide for the elderly, spends most of her day behind the wheel making house calls. The fuel rebate Mr. Macron offered isn’t nearly enough, she said. Instead, Ms. Weissgerber is saving money by not driving on weekends and forgoing vacations this year. She plans to vote for Ms. Le Pen, citing her proposed tax cuts on fuel and other essential products.

“It’s hard to make ends meet. My boss doesn’t pay for gas,” she said.

Mr. Macron has a history of hitting the world stage just as public anger over purchasing power is coming to a boil. In 2018 he was focused on hosting world leaders in Paris for the centennial of the Armistice when protesters donning yellow safety vests began demonstrating against a government plan to raise taxes on gasoline.

The movement then morphed into weekly riots during which boutiques were torched and hundreds were injured. After protesters defaced the Arc de Triomphe, Mr. Macron canceled a planned tax increase, ordered a minimum-wage increase for some workers and pushed companies to give employees a one-time bonus.

More recently, Mr. Macron has been too busy holding calls with President Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders to hit the campaign trail, his aides said. It was only after he officially declared his candidacy on March 3 that Mr. Macron released his electoral program, including a contentious pledge to raise the age of retirement to 65 years.

“The price of fuel, bread, cooking oil, everything is increasing, except our salary,” said Patrick Philippe, a 58-year-old factory worker.

Patrick DuPont, a 66-year-old retired coal miner from eastern France, has long supported Les Républicains, the party of establishment conservatives. But this election, he is considering voting for Ms. Le Pen. Mr. DuPont attended a rally she held last week in his hometown of Stiring-Wendel.“If prices continue to increase like this, it’s going to become complicated,” he said. “My pension doesn’t keep up.”

Sylvain Bersinger is an economist at consulting firm Asteres. An earlier version of this article misspelled his last name as Bensinger. 

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