As French inflation hits 13-year high, baguette pricing wars plague Macron’s reelection campaign

February 1, 2022, 4:35 PM UTC

Two months before French President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough reelection contest at the polls, a fraught debate over inflation has embroiled one of France’s most treasured national symbols: the simple baguette, of which the French munch 320 loaves per second, every day of the year.

With inflation in France hitting a 13-year peak, supermarket giant Leclerc last month erected posters in hundreds of outlets depicting a baguette and stating, “There are symbols that must be defended at all costs.” Its promise: to keep the baguette price at 29 euro cents (about 33 cents), well below the price in many competing supermarkets of around a euro. The posters vow to maintain the price for at least four months, no matter the rate of inflation. “We’ll eat the cost,” it quips.

The French likely need that relief, but the price of bread could well become a major election issue.

On Tuesday, the country’s official statistical agency, INSEE, announced that France’s monthly consumer price index rose 2.9%—its highest rate since September 2008—while the rate of inflation over a 12-month period was 3.3%. That was down a fraction from the 12-month rate of 3.4% reported at the end of 2021, but still well above the 3% that had been forecast by economists polled by Reuters.

While consumers may appreciate cheap baguettes, Leclerc’s move sparked fury among cash-strapped farmers, who say they, too, have been hard hit by inflation. Alexandre Castrec, president of a farmers’ organization in Brittany, called the rock-bottom price of baguettes “unacceptable—things have a cost,” adding, “Consumers have to accept paying a little more.”

France is hardly the only EU country facing steep price rises. The biggest eurozone economy, Germany, reported on Monday that consumer prices had risen 4.9% in January, according to a flash estimate by the country’s statistics agency. Even so, unlike the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB) has so far resisted raising interest rates, fearing it could slow economic growth. Implementing monetary action too soon “could hold back the nascent recovery, and that would jeopardize jobs,” ECB executive board member Isabel Schnabel told Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview.

But France—the EU’s second-biggest economy—is caught between the ECB’s decision on rates and a two-round presidential election on April 10 and April 24, with Macron seeking a second five-year term in office.

Macron failing to win a second term could have major implications for Europe, and arguably for the U.S. as well. Until July 1, Macron will be the rotating president of the European Council, which comprises the 27 EU leaders, and he is the bloc’s preeminent leader following the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in December.

In recent days, Macron has been engaged in a frenzied round of diplomacy to try avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, engaging in telephone talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and hosting talks last month in Paris between the two countries.

Even so, for French voters, the prospect of war in Ukraine seems far less relevant to their pocketbook. “Foreign affairs is not at all on top of minds of the voters,” Henri Wallard, chairman in France for the polling company Ipsos, tells Fortune. Inflation is instead.

“Purchase power is identified by people as the main thing at stake in the presidential campaign,” Wallard says. “We ask people among a number of topics to pick what is most important, and by far purchase power ranks number one.”

The French government last Friday reported 7% economic growth for 2021—its highest rate since 1969, although it comes after a dismal 2020.

And yet, for the regular French voter, what appears to be a boom has been offset by price rises, particularly of fuel, which rose 21% during the first 10 months of last year, according to INSEE.

That is particularly painful for residents in more modest-income outlying areas, who need to drive to work; in a report last week, several told France 24 television that they had cut down on nonessential journeys; unleaded fuel costs about $7.50 a gallon at gas stations in France. “Before I would take the car and go for walks along the pond or go fishing,” one man told France 24. “Now, I don’t even go out for walks.”

Turmoil over gas prices is familiar to Macron. The massive yellow-vest protests that rocked France for months in 2018 and 2019 brought parts of Paris to a virtual standstill as demonstrators burned barricades and smashed storefronts. The movement—named for the fluorescent vests demonstrators wore—erupted after Macron raised fuel prices in order to pay for the country’s green-energy transition; the French leader ultimately reversed his decision, but France has faced bitter divisions over consumer prices ever since.

“The problem [the government] faces is that these price rises are likely to last,” Sandra Hobian, of France’s Center of the Research and Study of Living Standards, or Crédoc, told France 24. “And why do people live far from their workplaces? Because property prices are very, very high.”

No amount of 33 cent baguettes will fix that.

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