By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) – Emmanuel Macron would resist swift, hefty tax cuts to revive France’s sluggish economy if he wins the presidential election and instead embark on a big bang of structural reforms to strengthen long-term growth, his economics advisers said.
Macron, a pro-EU centrist, is favorite to win the vote, with polls showing him facing off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a May 7 second round runoff and winning comfortably.
A former investment banker who served as outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande’s economy minister for two years, Macron wants to drive growth through a more skilled workforce and says cutting the euro zone’s second-largest budget deficit is key to regaining credibility with EU paymaster Germany.
Jean Pisani-Ferry, who heads Macron’s economics team and once led the Hollande government’s in-house think-tank France-Strategie, said the independent challenger would bolster French competitiveness by focusing on quality and not just cost.
That would mark a shift from Hollande’s push to reduce labor costs through a 40 billion euro ($43.14 billion) tax credit on wages – a policy introduced when Hollande adopted a more pro-business stance midway though his term to spur growth.
“In 2012, there was an urgent need for a cost competitiveness shock. That’s no longer today’s priority,” Pisani-Ferry told Reuters and a group of European journalists in an interview.
“Today’s priority is to scale up the skill-set of the French economy,” he said, referring to what economists call non-cost competitiveness, or an economy’s ability to increase exports by improving the quality of products rather than cutting prices.
France has lost competitiveness against better-quality German products and also against cheaper products from countries with lower labor costs like Spain, according to economists.
Macron wants to compete on quality, rather than depress wages, his team said.
To help French companies, he would turn Hollande’s temporary tax credit into a permanent tax cut, though not by the 25 billion euros promised by his conservative rival Francois Fillon.
However, he would also invest 15 billion euros to train one million unskilled youths and another million long-term unemployed workers for jobs in the growing digital, technology and energy sectors.
His team forecasts the investment in skills alone would add 0.4 of a percentage point to annual economic growth by the end of the next presidential term in 2022.
To attract foreign investors, Macron would cut corporate tax to 25 percent from 33.33 percent, but do so gradually to ensure that France, a long-time flouter of EU deficit rules, gets and keeps its budget shortfall below 3 percent of national income.
The last time the center-right won power in 2007, former president Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Brussels to negotiate more leeway on the budget deficit so he could cut taxes.
“We refuse to do what was done by our predecessors,” economic advisor David Amiel said. “We make no apology for our budget discipline.”
Macron, who as economy minister lobbied for last year’s labor law reforms to be more ambitious in the face of stiff union resistance, promises a further easing of labor regulations in his first year.
He says he would make it easier for firms to sack workers by capping severance packages and would allow companies to strike in-house deals over pay, working hours and conditions. He would also focus financing for vocational training and apprenticeships on the unemployed and less-well educated members of the workforce.
In his second year, policy priorities would include unifying France’s 37 different pension systems into one, modeling it on Sweden’s point-based system, as well as an overhaul of the unemployment insurance system to take its management away from unions and bosses.
Macron’s target is to cut France’s unemployment rate to 7 percent by 2022 from 10 percent currently.
“The French have been disheartened by years of unkept promises, so we are modest in our forecasts,” Pisani-Ferry said.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Richard Lough)