What Macron Is Doing Right

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Emmanuel Macron is trying to be something new in French politics — a president who responds to public concerns without dropping his reforms at the first sign of trouble. Instead he has tried to air public grievances and react without caving into protesters’ demands. For this he deserves credit.

To pull France out of the economic troubles that have created the protests, however, he’s going to need to double down on his reforms.

Macron’s first response to the protests — a 10 billion-euro ($11.2 billion) package of handouts, including a minimum wage hike — failed to end them or to pull his popularity rating out of the low 30s. So he sent public officials out to listen to the people, and did a lot of talking and listening himself. Thousands of conversations were conducted around the country over two months, and there were nearly 2 million online responses.

To demonstrate that his government had paid attention, a humbler president last week announced 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) worth of tax cuts, citizen participation in economic decision-making, decentralized public services, and lower barriers to holding referendums. At the same time, Macron rightly refused to restore the punitive wealth tax he had eliminated, or to give the Yellow Vests the citizens’ initiative referendums they’ve demanded.

It’s easy to be dismissive of Macron’s “Great National Debate.” All politicians go on occasional listening tours. But it was highly unusual for such an exercise to be undertaken by a leader not facing an election, and hard to think of a precedent on the scale of Macron’s exercise.

To be sure, it’s a sign that his situation is desperate. France’s traditional social contract — under which the state has levied high taxes and delivered all-encompassing services and social protection — is broken. The French government taxes more of GDP than other advanced countries do, and unemployment remains at nearly 9 percent (youth unemployment is especially high); moreover, many French feel that life is getting worse.

To address these problems and meet his goal of full employment, Macron will have to truly transform the French economy. Nearly halfway into his five-year term, he has accomplished some notable changes, especially by removing some rigid controls on the labor market. But the hard part lies ahead.

Macron has a couple of small steps in mind. He’s pledged to scrap the famed Ecole Nationale d’Administration, France’s ultra-elite training academy for civil servants (and Macron’s alma mater). But this will do nothing to pare down or decentralize France’s oversized, money-hungry civil service.

Similarly, Macron has promised to reduce classroom size for the youngest students to no more than 24. But this alone won’t reduce inequality in French education.

Macron said he has instructed the government of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to draw up plans for further reforms. That might buy the president a little time and help him spread accountability. But having listened carefully to the French people, Macron surely must realize that significant action cannot be indefinitely postponed.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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