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December 15, 2020

Europe

FRANCE: Three topics to watch in 2021

BY Antonio Barroso

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The Covid-19 pandemic will continue to dominate the agenda of President Emmanuel Macron’s administration during the first months of 2021. However, next year will mark the last opportunity for Macron to push for policy initiatives as the landscape of candidates running in the 2022 presidential election starts to take shape. Below we analyze the three main topics to watch in French politics in the next twelve months.

1. Trying to end the pandemic (and support measures): The second wave of Covid-19 infections has recently led to the addition of around EUR 8bn of fresh crisis support money to the 2021 draft budget about to be approved by the National Assembly. The decision shows that withdrawing support measures, as advocated by some members of the government, will remain unlikely as long as further Covid-19 waves continue to hit the country. At the same time, the uncertainty associated with the rollout of the vaccine makes it difficult to ascertain when the government will be able to abandon its “stop-and-go” approach to the pandemic. The health authorities want to start immunizing the general public in the spring, but mistrust towards the vaccine in France is among the world’s highest. It remains unclear whether the government’s decision to allow GPs to administer the vaccine will help to reduce some of the skepticism.

2. Limited room for reforms: The focus on the pandemic means there will not be much space left for significant policy initiatives, such as pension reform, over the coming months. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said on 14 December that the government should still push ahead for the parliamentary ratification of the proposed changes to the pension system. However, a resumption of the approval process is highly unlikely to happen in the first half of the year. And with government efforts focused on countering the economic scars of Covid-19, Macron could decide to leave the reform for a potential second term. The president has also promised this week a referendum to include a commitment to fight climate change and preserve the environment in the French constitution. Although the proposal is likely to prove relatively popular, pushing for such a vote could create the risk of opposition parties trying to convert it into a plebiscite on Macron. In any case, the restrictions created by the pandemic might not leave much time for the government to organize a referendum before the 2022 presidential vote.

3. A two-way presidential race? The regional and departmental elections scheduled for March but expected to be delayed to June will be the last votes to take place ahead of the 2022 presidential contest. However, the key signpost to watch next year is the announcements of the different candidacies to the two-round presidential election. The two main threats to another second-round contest between Macron and far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen are the emergence of a unified candidacy on the left or the rise of a credible alternative candidate on the center-right. So far, they have not materialized, and the available polling data on different combinations of candidates still points to a rerun of the 2017 race. However, the electorate has become much more volatile since 2017, which means such a scenario should not be taken for granted.

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