x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

France's socialist dreams will be dashed by euro realities

Even if leftist challenger François Hollande defeats Nicolas Sarkozy, France's real situation will impose policies rather like the ones the current president has followed.

In May 1981, Europe held its breath as a Socialist candidate, Francois Mitterrand, challenged the right-wing grip on power in France with a promise of radical change. Thanks in part to an economic crisis caused by the oil price rise, Mitterrand swept to victory and set about establishing socialism in one country.

Not surprisingly, the franc, the currency used by France before it joined the euro, came under speculative pressure. The rich flocked to Switzerland with suitcases full of currency to escape a wealth tax. Faced with the financial crisis, Mitterrand reversed himself and signed up to the nostrum of sound money and stable finances.

Everyone is asking if the same process could be set in motion on Sunday, when France holds the first round of a presidential election that all the polls indicate the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, is going to lose, and badly. There are many similarities: the socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, is campaigning on a programme with some radical socialist elements: 75 per cent tax for those earning over €1 million (Dh4.8 million) a year, hiring 60,000 new teachers and lowering the pension age from 62 to 60.

Even more worrying for France's neighbours, Mr Hollande has promised to renegotiate the European fiscal stability pact, the belt-tightening code that Germany has imposed as the price of bailouts for the more profligate countries using the euro. With the economic consensus insisting on austerity, even at the cost of beggary, Mr Hollande seems to be courting financial Armageddon.

Mr Sarkozy has not been a bad president. He has coped with international crises with energy and dexterity, helping to end the 2009 Russia-Georgia war and taking advantage of the disturbances in Libya to remove Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. What French voters seem to hold against him is that his pugnacious, hyperactive character has demeaned the dignity of the office of president. Top of the charge sheet was his whirlwind romance with Carla Bruni, former model, singer and rock chick, in 2008, after his second divorce.

Mr Hollande is an anti-Sarkozy: a self-declared Mr Normal with no taste for bling or attention-seeking, he never got around to marrying the mother of his four children, the former presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

The desire for change seems clear. Opinion polls suggest that the first ballot on Sunday, among 10 candidates, may be a close run thing between the incumbent and Mr Hollande. But as neither will reach 50 per cent of the vote, it will go to a second round where Mr Hollande is likely to coast to an easy victory, thanks to the reserve of votes from the left and far left.

Mr Sarkozy is not in such a strong position in this electoral arithmetic. By courting the votes of the far right National Front, whose candidate, Marine Le Pen, will probably come in third place, he has alienated many of the centre, while Ms Le Pen's voters may be inclined to stay away from the second round rather than cast their ballots.

European leaders are giving Mr Hollande a wide berth. His declaration of war on the bankers - he has said: "My main adversary is the world of finance" - can only spell turbulence for Europe that, even after successive bailouts and austerity pacts, is still only a whisker away from the next crisis. The patience of the markets will be tested further when parliamentary elections are held in June. Almost certainly, the Left will seize control of the National Assembly, giving it full control of the state.

So is it time to cash in your euros? Not necessarily.

Mr Hollande is no Marxist revolutionary. He is, in fact, more of a pillar of the French elite than Mr Sarkozy, an outsider and son of a Hungarian immigrant. The platforms of both men are quite centrist, apart from some provocative bolt-ons to please the fringes. Mr Sarkozy has played up the race and immigration cards, saying French identity is threatened by halal meat, while Mr Hollande has talked of 75 per cent taxes for a rather small minority of the super rich. Both men want a balanced budget - Mr Sarkozy by 2016 and Mr Hollande by 2017.

Observers have complained that the campaign has been empty of substance - more about the candidates' character (Mr Hollande's nickname used to be "Flanby", a wobbly pudding, until he lost 20 kilos for the campaign) and experience (Mr Hollande has almost none) than what they would do to set right France's deficit and excessive state spending. The Economist magazine called France "a country in denial". But there is another explanation: neither Mr Sarkozy nor Mr Hollande would get elected by promising blood, sweat and tears, so there is no advantage in speaking too frankly about France's economic ills.

Mr Hollande will have to carry out some fancy footwork to step around his promises. But you can already see the process beginning. He began by saying he would renegotiate the fiscal stability pact. This week he said: "If the pact contains no measures for growth, I can't recommend it for ratification." He is giving himself a lot of wiggle room.

This is not surprising. The prestige of France requires it to compete as an equal with Germany, even though this gets more difficult every year, with the German economy in rude health while all around are struggling. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has openly backed Mr Sarkozy, but she will have to learn to live with Mr Hollande. The betting is that he will prove to be a good European, which in this case requires a close alliance between Paris and Berlin.

If French voters really think they are heading for a socialist paradise insulated from the bitter winds blowing through the euro zone, then they are truly naive and have learnt nothing from the Mitterrand years. This campaign is first and foremost about change - removing Mr Sarkozy, who is taking the blame for the economic crisis. It is a little holiday from the grim reality of politics in the euro zone. Mr Normal will clearly make some changes around the margins to France's economic policy. But he is not the man to upset the European apple cart.



On Twitter: @aphilps