Personal Wealth Management / Politics

French Political Uncertainty Is Likely a Fleeting Headwind

Will noisy French politics upend markets?

Editors’ Note: MarketMinder Europe prefers no party nor any politician. We assess developments for their economic and market impact only.

French stocks tumbled last week following President Emmanuel Macron’s unexpected decision to call snap parliamentary elections.[i] Headlines we follow are full of speculation about the chances of a populist victory radically altering policy, with some drawing parallels to the early 2010s’ euro crisis. But we suggest long-term investors cool down. Last week’s market reaction—and the associated newsflow— looks like a sentiment reaction to us and one we think is likely to prove fleeting.

For the week, French stocks fell -6.9% whilst 10-year bond yields rose from 3.10% on 7 June to as high as 3.25% last Wednesday—before reversing back to 3.11% last Friday.[ii] Meanwhile, German yields fell sharply, from 2.62% to 2.35%.[iii] This widened the spread between France’s 10-year and Germany’s 10-year—a popular measure of perceived credit risk—to 0.76 percentage point by the week’s end, the highest in seven years.[iv]

The cause, based on our review of financial headlines: politics. We read many headlines warning a big win for the nationalist National Rally (NR) in the snap legislative vote would give it the ability to override any Presidential veto and implement its perceived anti-business agenda (which includes higher public spending and taxes and restrictions on foreign acquisitions and share buybacks). The widening bond spreads appeared to hit sentiment toward banks, which are big bondholders, hardest.[v] Lesser-exposed firms in French Industrials, Discretionary or Consumer Staples sectors fell, but not nearly as much overall.[vi]

As we wrote last week, the radical policy shifts hyped amongst commentators we follow appear unlikely to materialise. Macron probably isn’t going anywhere. Barring his resignation, which he has denied is on the table, he will remain president regardless of the vote’s result. Macron also likely recognises the recent European Parliamentary election was a protest vote and rebuke of his government. Turnout illustrates this. French turnout for EP elections was below 45% whilst national elections typically see over 70%.[vii] Based on our observations, Macron is likely banking on broader French voters making a different choice when it comes to domestic politics, and higher turnout could tilt the scales away from NR.

Moreover, we don’t think any one party is likely to win a majority. Despite the NR’s current momentum, we think some factors work against it. Fielding 577 candidates in 577 constituencies in less than a month is a tall order, and the NR’s nationwide ground game isn’t great. Even when its co-leader, Marine Le Pen, ran a strong presidential campaign in 2022, the party won just 89 seats.[viii] Current party president Jordan Bardella has less political baggage but is untested. As for Macron, his party announced over the weekend it wouldn’t field candidates in other parties’ strongholds, focussing his campaign on seats where his party has better chances. We think this reduces the risk of centrist parties splitting the vote.

Should the NR take a majority, Macron has to select the party’s candidate as prime minister. That sets up an arrangement known as cohabitation, which has happened three times since 1958’s constitution created the Fifth Republic. A PM’s influence during cohabitation is tied to parliament’s post-election structure. An NR prime minister could walk back some of Macron’s reforms—or push forward with their national-level agenda—but they will likely have to be selective or risk facing no-confidence votes in parliament. In our view, that is a recipe for watered-down policies. And note, even under the widely discussed scenario of an NR government with a legislative majority, passing controversial laws (e.g., a windfall tax) won’t automatically derail French markets. The details matter, as no legislation is automatically good or bad. See windfall duties in Spain and Italy, which haven’t upended markets there.[ix]

To us, the French saga looks mostly like the latest chapter in Europe’s extensive recent history of fearing so-called populism. Unexpected political developments—and the projections they stir—could roil markets for a spell, but our research shows the impact tends to be fleeting. Go back two years, when then-new Prime Minister Liz Truss’s mini budget prompted droves of speculation that the plans amounted debt-fuelling unfunded tax cuts—somewhat resembling budget fears in France today, in our view. The short-term market reaction was swift, as UK gilt yields soared from 3.77% on 23 September to 4.55% on 10 October.[x] The episode forced Truss to resign after only 44 days in office, but markets quickly calmed.[xi]

Or take Italy in 2018, when the nationalist League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) inspired projections of an unshackled populist government in financial headlines we monitored. Yes, the populists’ struggle to form a government spurred worries of a new election, and that uncertainty likely contributed to Italian stocks’ falling about -11.8% in the month’s second half.[xii] Yet things eventually quieted down, and the populist League-M5S coalition didn’t accomplish much—and lasted just a little over a year.

Fears of a Le Pen-led party in power aren’t even new. The aforementioned French-German 10-year yield spread was higher in February 2017, around the time Le Pen (whose party was then called the National Front) declared her presidential candidacy—which stirred even more worries about radical change (e.g., France’s exiting the euro) than today.[xiii] Seven years later, Le Pen rebranded her party (from National Front to National Rally) and moderated on some of those controversial policies (e.g., reforming the EU instead of leaving the common currency). As always, we think investors benefit from watching what politicians do, not what they say.

[i] Source: FactSet, as of 18/6/2024. Statement based on MSCI France Index price returns in GBP, 7/6/2024 – 14/6/2024.

[ii] Source: FactSet, as of 18/6/2024. Statement based on MSCI France Index price returns in GBP, 7/6/2024 – 14/6/2024 and French 10-year yield, 7/6/2024 – 14/6/2024.

[iii] Ibid. Statement based on German 10-year yield, 7/6/2024 – 14/6/2024.

[iv] Ibid. Statement based on yield spread between 10-year German and 10-year French bond yields, 30/1/2017 – 14/6/2024.

[v] Ibid. Statement based on price returns in GBP of select French banks, 7/6/2024 – 14/6/2024.

[vi] Ibid. Statement based on price returns in GBP of select French companies in the Industrials, Consumer Discretionary and Consumer Staples sectors, 7/6/2024 – 14/6/2024.

[vii] Source: Insee and European Union, as of 18/6/2024.

[viii] “Le Pen’s National Rally Wins Seats, Airtime and Money in French Vote,” Jules Darmanin, Politico, 20/6/2022.

[ix] Source: FactSet, as of 18/6/2024. Statement based on MSCI Italy Index returns with net dividends in euro, 31/7/2023 – 17/6/2024 and MSCI Spain Index returns with net dividends in euro, 30/11/2022 – 30/11/2023. Dates selected based on 12-month return (or longest available timeframe if 12 months not applicable) from end of month before tax was first announced. Currency fluctuations between the euro and pound may result in higher or lower investment returns.

[x] Ibid. Statement based on 10-year UK gilt yield, 23/9/2022 – 10/10/2022.

[xi] Ibid. Statement based on 10-year UK gilt yield, 31/8/2022 – 31/8/2023.

[xii] Ibid. MSCI Italy Index returns with net dividends in GBP, 14/5/2018 – 29/5/2018.

[xiii] See note iv.

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