Language for and against globalisation was one of the most marked aspects of the 2017 French elections, especially in the final round between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. It is flowing even more in this year’s contest between the two.
“[Le Pen’s] programme will create massive unemployment because it will trigger the flight of international investors and it doesn’t make budgetary sense, it won’t work for long,” lambasted Macron in an interview with Le Parisien in early April.
Meanwhile, Le Pen told Le Figaro that voting for her or Macron was a choice “between the nation and globalisation”.
Although both candidates are employing a good deal of hyperbole, it is safe to say that Macron and Le Pen would mean very different things for France’s international business environment.
This matters because foreign companies create a huge number of jobs in France. In January 2022, for example, the French government revealed how 21 new investments by foreign business, worth €4bn, would create 10,000 jobs and more than 16,000 temporary jobs by the end of 2022. Many of these would be high-quality roles with the likes of Procter & Gamble, Mondelez, Braun, Merck, Biogen, Mars and Minnesota-based Ecolab, whose expansion of its Luce Letartre Center of Excellence in northern France makes it Europe’s largest hygiene R&D centre.
France has never been more sexy to foreign companies
When a 39-year-old Macron took power in 2017 – the youngest French leader since Napoleon – he set out to transform France’s old-fashioned business environment. In this regard, he made strident steps.
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For one, Macron loosened the country’s notoriously rigid labour market, making it easier to hire and fire people – something that helped cut unemployment from 10% to 7.4% (the lowest since 2008). He also began the process of decreasing France’s relatively high corporate tax rate from 33.3% down to 25%, while also extending the country’s research tax credit and simplifying procedures for incoming foreign companies to set up shop.
Macron's support for foreign investors during the pandemic boosted business confidence in the country even further, which is one reason why France remained the leading destination for foreign direct investment in 2021 (for another year running), according to the latest EY European Investment Monitor.
Le Pen is an unknown quantity for France
The EU and Nato are holding their breath in the hope that Marine Le Pen, a Euro-Nato-sceptic par excellence, does not take power.
“I am very worried about it, I hope that we won’t get Le Pen as president of France,” Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn said in mid-April, in an unusually uninhibited remark.
Le Pen has significantly closed the gap with Macron since mid-March thanks to her focus on the cost of living crisis, rhetoric that has chimed well with her long-term aims of government-led price setting (for certain goods), giving out subsidies to prop up faltering sectors of the economy, and setting up a French sovereign wealth fund to invest in strategic sectors focused on what she calls “localism”, as opposed to the “globalism” promoted by Macron.
Foreign investors in, or prospecting, France are also holding their breath, especially bigger companies.
Le Pen would like to see corporate tax stay at 33.3% for large companies, while creating a new tax on profits made in France by big companies that manage to avoid paying corporate tax.
Besides this, Le Pen has outlined a range of trade policies, described as “intelligent protectionism”, that include measures to promote French businesses while protecting them from foreign competitors. Tapping into this, she has also talked about installing a new tax on companies when they hire foreign workers.
It is unclear how serious Le Pen is in her anti-globalisation rhetoric, something that makes her an unknown quantity in many respects, and therefore a waking nightmare for international investors. It is also unclear if she appreciates the extent to which foreign companies contribute to the French economy. If not, please do take note, Presidential Candidate Le Pen: Foreign-owned businesses employed 2.2 million people in France in 2019, according to statistics published in late 2021 by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies. Those jobs have only increased since then, estimates show. Foreign investors are more than just rhetorical ammunition for the populist shotgun.