Emmanuel Macron’s welfare cuts show UK-style austerity has come to France

Rather than Tony Blair, it is now David Cameron that the French president risks emulating. 

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France quietly introduced a radical change to its unemployment benefit system last week. From November, job seekers or chômeurs will have to prove they worked for longer in order to qualify for welfare payments, and further austerity measures will follow in the new year. While the French government has hailed a reform that it estimates will save €3.4bn over three years and reduce unemployment by hundreds of thousands, trade unions have described it as a “massacre” that will penalise almost half of France’s 2.4 million unemployed workers (8.2 per cent). 

The new reforms, announced by government decree last July, took effect on 1 November. From now on, only those who have worked six of the last 24 months will be able to receive benefits (until November, individuals had to work four of the last 28). By next April,  benefits will also be reduced by 30 per cent for workers who earn more than €4,500 a month after six months of unemployment. Médiapart’s projections showed that the most precarious workers would be the most affected, receiving benefits for longer, but in sums so low (with payments halved or cut by two-thirds) that it would be “impossible to pay rent or feed themselves”.

The measures were part of Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election programme, in common with his pension reforms, currently the subject of “social discussions” with the country’s trade unions. The concessions demanded by the unions over the former were vetoed by employer federations and negotiations broke down. Because the decree was passed in the heat of summer, with little debate, the majority of the French, including job seekers, had not even heard of the measure until last week. 

Macron and his government have long aimed to ”modernise” the French labour market through free-market reforms. In 2018, the president said he hoped to make those receiving benefits “more responsible” because “some fool about”. He has also declared that “the best way to pay for one’s suit is to work”, pondered over the “crazy dough” spent on benefits, and advised an unemployed gardener to “cross the street” to find a job. 

The president recently vowed that he “will not yield” on this autumn’s other controversial reform (pensions) but he has so far remained silent on its counterpart. French labour minister Murielle Pénicaud, however, has stated that “receiving unemployment benefits isn’t a life goal, it’s a security net between two jobs”. He added: “When the job market is dynamic, people must go back to work.”

But the reform has caused widespread anxiety. The CFDT union estimates that more than 1.4 million job seekers — almost half — will be negatively impacted.

“We will go from a system of unemployment benefits to a system creating poverty,” the CFDT’s secretary-general, Laurent Berger, has said, calling the measures a “massacre” and one of the “toughest” assaults on social rights in the last 25 years. A Le Monde editorial has warned that the “punitive” reform risks “spreading the very precarity it claims to fight against”, and may even “create a new population of poor people”.

In January, an article in Le Monde diplomatique drew parallels between Macron’s liberal labour policies and Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, which showed the dramatic consequences of austerity policies on workers’ lives. Both the president and the British director, it noted, had been inspired by the UK labour market. In Britain, welfare cuts have led to a growing population of the working poor and marginalised those who can no longer claim benefits, putting up to 500,000 people in working poverty in the last five years, while creating “an army of the unemployed who are unaccounted for”. 

Macron has often been compared to Tony Blair owing to his electoral success and his glossy, pro-European style. Yet two and a half years into his presidential term, it is David Cameron the French president now appears to be emulating through his austerity policies. This reform will have deep, immediate effects on French jobseekers’ lives, of the kind depicted by Loach. 

Cameron was forced to face the consequences of austerity through the Brexit vote, which ended his political career and plunged the UK into chaos. Macron may succeed in modernising France, but he would ensure that he does not emulate this grim precedent. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.