Monday, May 07, 2012

Can you spare me some change?

I’m not sure when the glossy French magazine Le Point went to press with its brand new edition, but the front cover declaring Francois Hollande “Le Président” seems a tad presumptuous.

Still, it was clear that Nicolas Sarkozy went into yesterday’s presidential runoff with the rope burns on his lower back still red-raw from the first round of elections two weeks ago.

In the end, the final round was decisive, though hardly a TKO - Hollande winning by just 3% of the vote in an election which saw an impressive 81% of the French electorate turning out to vote.

The outcome was a vote for change. “Un choix historique”, trailed Le Figaro on Saturday morning, requiring little embellishment with the follow-up this morning: “François Hollande président”, with Les Echos going with the more emphatic “François Hollande à l’épreuve du pouvoir” (“Francois Hollande has stood the test of power”), an endorsement of the president-elect's lack of experience in public office.

Like Britain in 1997, France has decided that 17 years of centre-right conservative rule had to end, beckoning a form of post-modern socialism to address what Hollande had claimed was the failure of the Sarkozy economic approach. Actually, France has voted for normality in abnormal times, a vote as much for more agreeable grocery bills each week (which, if mine in Paris are anything to go by, are horrendous nationwide) as much for the Élysées Palace to be occupied by someone with less stardust and fewer famous connections.

Quite how normal France will become under the somewhat dry Hollande remains to be seen. He has promised to increase taxes by Eur 40 billion to fund increased public spending, at a time when the French budget deficit needs to be reduced by Eur 18 billion over the next year or so. That will hurt the wealthy – and it remains to be seen just what threshold the description “wealthy” crosses. Those at the top end of corporate remuneration will certainly have their salaries come under scrutiny: on the campaign stump Hollande promised to raise taxes on the country’s biggest corporate citizens, with individuals earning more than a million euros a year facing a tax rate as high as 75%.

Certainly Hollande will push to invest in the public sector, including education (he used to be a teacher), creating 60,000 new teaching jobs in the process to boost France’s educational base in the global economy. With a despondent French youth bearing the brunt of austerity, such measures will go a long way to instil a sense of hope in a country where, away from the swank of Paris and its obvious opulence, hope has gone wanting.

Inevitably, however, France’s domestic challenges will continue to be played out on the European stage. Hollande has argued throughout his campaign that austerity measures in the Eurozone have failed and that the EU needs to reset its thinking. No surprise, then, that at the top of Hollande’s dance card is the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Hollande wants to redefine the EU agreement on financial discipline; Merkel has said “nein” to revisiting the fiscal pact. Compromise seems inevitable, but there is still a lot to be done to appease the European stock markets, with the euro dropping as bourses opened on Monday morning (though notably London was closed for, ironically, the May Day holiday).

Challenging the mechanism of restriction (“austerity can no longer be the only option”) won’t calm nervous investors in Europe, either. Hollande is an unknown quantity as far as experience of government is concerned, but despite his socialist colours, no revolutionary either. “The left should embody grand hopes,” Hollande was quoted in Saturday’s Le Monde, adding: “but it must not reduce itself to grand moments”. His goal is a long-term transformation of France and French society. That, for now, appears a long way off.

Hollande was born in Rouen, the focus of vicious fighting between British and German forces in the aftermath of D-Day. A prescient historic detail for the incoming president, a relatively sombre personality going into battle against the abstemious economic mood. But compared with the man he replaces, criticised for his lifestyle and friends, the highly educated Hollande is more administrator than showboat political superstar. And that, perhaps, is what France wants. What he will have to remember is that D-Day represented only the first 24 hours of French liberation. A long campaign lay ahead before VE Day – on May 8, 1945. 72 years ago tomorrow.

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