France’s closely watched presidential election, whose first round occurs this Sunday, has been framed as a referendum on globalization, immigration, and France’s place in the world. Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant candidate of the National Front, would certainly like it to be seen that way. As President Trump did here, she thrives on an intensely gloomy view of her country’s present. The French agree, according to a 2016 poll: Four in five say the world is getting worse; just 3 percent say it’s getting better.
The French election is certainly about all of those things. But at its core, it’s about something simpler: jobs, or the lack thereof. C’est l’économie, idiote.
Emmanuel Macron, the centrist, ex-banker front-runner, says he’s the jobs candidate. He earned the ire of the unions by saying an Uber driver working 70 hours a week had more dignity than a man without work. François Fillon, the pro-business, anti–gay marriage Russophile running just behind him and Le Pen, also says he’s the jobs candidate. And so does Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the surging communist who wants to cap all incomes at 400,000 euros. In their own ways, they all want to put more French to work.
Polls indicate that jobs not only are the No. 1 issue for French voters but have been the No. 1 issue for months. And the polling surge of Mélenchon—whose voters, more than those of his peers, say their primary issue is work—feels like as much an expression of frustration with the system as a belated reaction to an issue previously submerged by louder, more provocative conversations about the EU and assimilation. (Though for what it’s worth, support for Le Pen also correlates neatly with the unemployment rate.)
France is famous for many things, but the glorification of work is not one of them. It’s not that the French don’t work hard; the country’s labor productivity is as high as in the United States or Germany. But many of them don’t work long hours. (Some of them, famously, don’t answer email on the weekend.) The number of hours worked per year and per employed individual is low, which the left sees as a victory. After all, what is progress if not workers spending more time with family and friends?
Not everyone has shared in those gains, however. Strong worker protections make employers reluctant to make new hires. As a consequence, the country’s rate of temporary employment is considerably above the OECD average, and young people suffer through years of stages, or internships, before landing full-time work. Last summer, President François Hollande pushed through a deeply unpopular labor law offering incremental reforms to the system, which generated massive street protests. Workers wanted to protect what was theirs.
That fiasco helped end Hollande’s political career and sank the chances of his deputy, Manuel Valls, who lost the Socialist Party primary to the leftist Benoît Hamon. Hamon said he would repeal the labor law but later (in a general election pivot) said he would come up with a new and better labor law. Hamon, who supports a universal income, argued the French needed to take a more nuanced view of traditional employment as a bedrock of identity. He is polling as an afterthought.
“France has in effect made a structural choice for unemployment,” the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote last week. “Everyone knows this. But because attachment to the model is fierce, honest discussion tends to be taboo.” Except not everyone wants that debate to remain under the surface.
Two sections of the population have suffered from the French system: young people and the first- and second-generation French who compose the country’s permanent underclass. (There’s a lot of overlap between those two groups.) Only 28 percent of French 15- to 24-year-olds work, a figure not much more than half the percentage in the U.S. or the U.K. Of course, many of them are in school. Still, the youth unemployment rate—measuring French who want to be in the workforce but aren’t—is around 25 percent. In the nation’s troubled banlieues, incredibly, that’s the general employment rate, and for young people, it ranges higher. For them, the daily grind of the trentes glorieuses, “Métro, boulot, dodo” (subway, work, sleep), is altogether unfamiliar.
There’s a narrative out there that France is on an even more ominous trajectory than the United Kingdom and the United States, whose elections upturned the status quo, because in France the youth is leaning right. The latest surveys don’t bear that out. Separate polls undertaken by the newspapers Paris Match and L’Express each show that support for Le Pen among French voters under 25 is hovering between 12 and 15 percent, down from 25 to 30 percent in January. (Her support rises with voters’ age until falling among seniors, some of whom may remember her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s more reactionary positions, while others may be worried about pension shocks if France leaves the European Union.)
Those numbers suggest French youth flirted with Le Pen as an alternative to the status quo. (In January, the race looked like a three-way between Le Pen, the conservative Fillon, and the law-and-order socialist Valls.) Now, with Mélenchon and Macron (a centrist but political upstart), they have three. Only against Fillon do polls project Le Pen taking more than 40 percent of the vote in the second round.
None of this is to say that the problem of the banlieues, whose blend of cultural isolation and economic deprivation has spurred hundreds of young Frenchmen to leave for Syria and fight for ISIS, does not figure heavily in her popularity. France made 424 terrorism arrests in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics were available, as many as Germany, the U.K., Belgium and Spain combined. At a rally on Wednesday, Le Pen said that immigrants were making France a “squat,” and that she would make France more French.
But there’s another way in which the prospect of higher employment deflates Le Pen’s appeal. Her critique of immigrants to France, and the country’s large Muslim minority, is cultural. Macron, by contrast, has campaigned in those areas as the candidat du travail. He—like the rest of the French left—clings to the hope that a good number of France’s assimilation problems boil down to economics.