Americans live to work, while the French work to live. That’s the cliché, and it’s time to retire it. If Emmanuel Macron defeats Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election — let’s pray the polls are right this time — the message from voters will be: The vacation in Martinique will have to wait. First, we’d like to work.
That’s the real story of this election, the most stunning aspect of which isn’t that the French might possibly install a crypto-fascist in the Élysée Palace. It’s that they seem strongly inclined to elect a former Rothschild investment banker who evinces no sense of guilt about his elite pedigree, capitalist profession and market-friendly economic inclinations that include tax cuts for corporations and an easing of the 35-hour workweek.
And no wonder. The French are desperate. Jobs are the No. 1 election concern, ahead of terrorism and the migration crisis. As of March, the unemployment rate was 10.1 percent. Youth unemployment: 23.7 percent. These figures would be shocking in the midst of a recession.
But this is France seven years into a recovery. The last time the growth rate surpassed the 3 percent mark was 17 years ago.
What ails France? The facile answer is to cite forces beyond French control: bureaucracy in Brussels; the currency straitjacket of the euro; the European Central Bank; the dark winds of globalization. Le Pen specializes in just this sort of blame shifting, which is another way in which she and Donald Trump are kindred spirits.
But the French can thank their lucky stars for reasonably stable money, the E.C.B.’s bond-buying spree and membership in a Union that allows French job seekers a chance to find work in higher-growth economies — including an estimated 300,000 in Britain alone.
A more honest account of France’s travails starts — and pretty much ends — with what the French often call their “social model.” France ranks first in the O.E.C.D.’s tables for government spending (57 percent of gross domestic product, tied with Finland) and welfare spending (31.5 percent). As of 2014, the total tax take was second only to Denmark’s.
This isn’t just a tax-and-spend model of government. More like: tax-spend-cosset-strangle. At least until the outgoing government of President François Hollande managed to ram through some modest labor-market reforms last year, the French labor code ran to over 3,000 pages.
The code is designed to make firing a full-time employee as difficult as possible — which makes hiring them that much more unlikely. As The Times’s Adam Nossiter reported last year, “90 percent of jobs created in France” in 2015 were “unstable, poorly paid and short term.”
None of this is a mystery to a majority of the French, though it often eludes credulous foreigners who extol the benefits of the French model without counting or being subject to its costs. The French twice elected conservative presidents — Jacques Chirac in 1995 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 — on the strength of promises to pare the state. Twice disappointed, they turned to the Socialist Hollande in 2012, but his flirtation with soak-the-rich policies was short-lived.
(Recent polls have been cruel to the president, but like Germany’s Gerhard Schroder, he will be remembered as one of the more courageous economic reformer in recent history, if perhaps only because he had so little politically to lose.)
Assuming Macron wins, his challenge won’t simply be political. It will also be pedagogical. Le Pen has offered him a relatively easy ideological foil, given how thoroughly tainted her party is by xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Yet it’s one thing to make the abstract case for openness, competitiveness and globalization in the face of a bigot. The harder climb will be to press for changes that inevitably take things away from people.
The paradox of France is that it is desperate for reform — and desperate not to be reformed. It wants the benefits of a job-producing competitive economy but fears relinquishing a job-protecting uncompetitive one. A Macron presidency will have to devote its intellectual and rhetorical energies to explaining that it can be one or the other, but not both.
I don’t want to close this column without allowing for the awful chance that Le Pen might win. That would be a moral tragedy for France and a probable disaster for Europe. But it would also be a reminder that chronic economic stagnation inevitably begets nationalist furies.
In the United States, a complacent left acquits itself too easily of its role in paving the way to the Trump presidency. Many of Le Pen’s supporters might be bigots, but their case against the self-satisfaction, self-dealing, moral preening and economic incompetence of the French ruling classes is nearly impeccable.
What has failed in France is an idea — an idea about the role of the state. Macron’s challenge, should he win, is to show the French there’s a better one.
Bret L. Stephens joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2017. His column appears Thursday and Saturday.