How Macron Can Revive His French Revolution

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- France's Yellow Vest protest movement seems to be losing steam. Turnout is diminishing, public support is weakening, and anger has flared over anti-Semitism in its ranks. If the marchers are mostly staying home, though, the problems they identified haven't gone away. In fact, they could define President Emmanuel Macron's remaining time in office.

The protesters first took to the streets in November to oppose a proposed fuel tax. As the movement spread, it seemed to give voice to a more general frustration with France's stagnation and inequalities. While the number of demonstrators was never huge — less than 300,000 at their peak — they received widespread public backing, a signal that the discontent that once fueled Macron's rise was only growing.

Now, with the Yellow Vests beset by violence and factionalism, Macron has embarked on a nationwide "listening tour" to hear out their grievances. Once the talk therapy is done, he'll need to come up with a coherent response to the movement's often-conflicting concerns. His best bet is to follow through on his bold campaign pledges to reinvigorate France's economy and create opportunities for those left behind.

In doing so, he faces two big challenges.

One is to continue making pro-growth reforms within France's narrow fiscal constraints. Public spending — which, at 56 percent of gross domestic product, is the highest of any advanced nation — hasn't declined as Macron promised. On the contrary, it is scheduled to increase more under his five-year term than it did in the previous five years.

Making matters worse, Macron has postponed the fuel tax and offered further concessions to the protesters that would add some 10 billion euros ($11.35 billion) to the bloated state budget. That will likely push France's deficit over the European Union's mandated limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product. Splurging on additional benefits won't help matters.

Instead, Macron's priority should be removing barriers to job creation and growth. Although he's made progress by loosening labor-market laws and overhauling the indebted state-run railways, he needs to think more ambitiously. Reducing France's sky-high non-wage labor costs would remove a significant bar to job creation, for one thing. Easing restrictions on new homes and amending laws that keep people in subsidized housing regardless of need could improve labor mobility without adding to the deficit.

The EU, for its part, should recognize the difference between reform-led debt increases of the kind Macron has proposed — which in the long run should improve France's finances by boosting growth — and simple profligacy of the sort advocated by Italy's populist government.

A second challenge for Macron is to make the government more responsive to everyday voters. For all their contradictory demands, one thing the protesters and their supporters share is a sense that they're not being listened to, that Paris is too far removed from the concerns of those in the towns and exurbs. Macron is advocating a smaller Parliament and some proportional representation in future elections. He should also consider bolder measures. France's National Assembly, elected every five years, is an insufficient check on executive power, for instance; introducing midterm elections might bring real accountability.

Macron has never made a secret of what he intended to do. His campaign book was titled "Revolution," and he wasn't exaggerating by much: No amount of tinkering at the edges would fulfill the mission that he set for himself. He should stick to the ambitious agenda that made his candidacy a beacon of much-needed change. France, and the Yellow Vests, would only benefit.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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