x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

French back Hollande's plans for growth

Voters reject austerity in favour of president's tax-and-spend strategy for economic revival.

MARSEILLE, France // Six weeks after winning the French presidential elections,Francois Hollande last night secured a clear parliamentary majority, removing the final obstacle to his tax-and-spend programme for revival.

The first estimates as polling stations closed suggested 291 seats for Mr Hollande's socialists, two more than needed for an absolute majority. With allies, but without the need to count on the far left, the lead becomes emphatic.

The victory in the run-offs of legislative elections is significant beyond the borders of France.

It enhances the president's authority as he presses fellow European heads of state, according to reports yesterday, for a €120 billion (Dh557bn) package to boost growth.

His party already has control of the senate, or upper house, in France and the majority in the national assembly gives his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and cabinet power to implement their wide-ranging domestic reforms.

There was a symbolic setback for the mainstream socialists in the Atlantic resort of La Rochelle, centre of the Charente-Maritime constituency, where Mr Hollande's former partner, Segolene Royal, a beaten presidential candidate against Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, lost her seat to a party rebel, Olivier Falorni.

But Philippe Kemel, the official socialist candidate in the northern division of Henin-Beaumont, may have produced a remarkable personal victory to deny a seat to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration Front National (FN). The result was close and a partial recount was ordered at the FN's insistence.

Ms Le Pen's niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, 22, did win in the southern city of Carpentras to ensure FN representation in parliament for the first time since 1998.

Laurent Fabius, the foreign secretary and number two in the French government, hailed the results generally as an important endorsement for change and for France's influence internationally. And it is more broadly in Europe that the French will is likely to face immediate tests.

Mr Hollande has already fallen out with the conservative German chancellor, Angela Merkel, over his emphasis on the need for measures to stimulate Europe's sluggish economy and his resistance to excessive reliance on austerity to tackle debt.

Without singling out France, but leaving few in doubt as to her target, Mrs Merkel warned last week about the dangers of "easy solutions" that promised only mediocrity. Mr Hollande's centre-right domestic opposition has been harsher, portraying his programme as a gamble that will bring France economic disaster.

Amid concern at reports of tensions between Paris and Berlin, Mr Hollande and Mrs Merkel had telephone discussions during the weekend that were described by French officials as "constructive and fruitful" - diplomatic language suggesting they concentrated on the search for common ground ahead of a European Union summit on June 28.

Details of Mr Hollande's call for a "growth pact" were disclosed in yesterday's edition of the newspaper, le Journal du Dimanche.

The French president was reported to have written to other EU leaders presenting his plans for using a bold initiative on investment and taxes on financial transactions to spark job creation.

His priority is youth unemployment, which has risen above 50 per cent in Spain, and he wants his proposed package to aid projects in new technology, renewable energy and infrastructure.

The president suggests, according to leaks, that the project could be financed using €55 billion from European structural funds, €60 billion from the European Investment Bank and €4.5 billion from bonds for infrastructure projects.

Political leaders agree on the importance to the future of the single currency, and European prospects generally, of the June summit in Brussels.

"Faced with such a worrying situation we cannot let the meeting fail," Mr Ayrault said when casting his own vote yesterday. "Europeans must be up to the task of resolving the debt issue, managing the debt, stopping the banking system exploding... and, moreover, we need growth initiatives."


* Additional reporting by AFP