The French Presidential Election: Addressing the Real Issues

by Antoine Cerisier

A striking resemblance

2012 is a busy electoral year: a few weeks after the dubious presidential election in Russia and six months before American citizens go to the voting booths, France will elect its new president. The first round will take place on 22 April, with the two frontrunners qualifying for a second round on 6 May. As usual, there is little doubt that the latter will feature two candidates from the centre-left and the conservatives. Indeed, Parti Socialiste’s François Hollande and UMP’s incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy are both credited with over 25% of voting intentions in the first round of the election, far ahead of their eight rivals. Although Mr Sarkozy might win the first round, Mr Hollande remains the favourite for the second and therefore for French presidency, partly due to the incumbent’s huge unpopularity. While the five smaller parties – including the Greens and the Trotskyist left – share little more than 7 or 8% of voting intentions between themselves, three clear outsiders have emerged in the last few months. François Bayrou, the honest centrist candidate from South Western France, has been a prominent figure in French politics for quite some time; however, his popularity seems to be stagnating around no more than 10% in recent polls.

Marine Le Pen, the head of far-right Front National – following the steps of her infamous father, Jean-Marie – should not get more than 14% of the votes in the first round. The real surprise, however, comes from the far-left with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former member of Parti Socialiste who could score more than 15% on 22 April. His defiance towards the right and the financial markets strikes a chord with millions of traditional leftwing voters disappointed by François Hollande’s centrism. His political peers and opponents admire him for his charisma and public speaking abilities. Mr Mélenchon has been able to gather over 50,000 people at recent demonstrations in Paris and Toulouse.

The rise of Mr Mélenchon comes as a relief for those worried about the campaign’s droitisation – namely the focus on security and immigration to attract far-right voters. Mr Sarkozy and UMP have been particularly fond of this technique ever since the 2007 presidential election. This tactic has been largely guided by Mr Sarkozy’s influential rightwing guru: Patrick Buisson, whose curriculum vitae includes student demonstrations against Algerian independence in the 1960s and the editorship of Minute, France’s foremost extreme-right newspaper, in the 1980s. Another crucial actor of this current trend is Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant, whose recent declarations on the alleged “superiority” of Western civilisation caused public outrage a few months ago. This rightward direction has been heavily criticised in France and abroad, with the Wall Street Journal – not exactly the most leftwing of publications – branding the incumbent as “Nicolas Le Pen”. However, recent events in Toulouse and Montauban, where an Islamist terrorist killed seven people including three Jewish children, gave a new momentum to Mr Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen.

Nonetheless, a majority of French citizens still want Mr Sarkozy to leave after 6 May, as demonstrated by most recent polls. The conservatives have now been in power for almost ten years – since Chirac’s re-election in 2002 – which is long enough for an in-depth assessment of their policies. By comparison, the left has never been in government for more than five consecutive years; but if UMP were to win the next election, their run would extend to fifteen years, the longest in French political history since the 1958-73 Gaullist era. Considering the party’s impact in the last decade, this may not be great news for France. Unemployment stands at 10% of the adult population and public debt has soared to over 85% of GDP. Of course, the economic crisis has largely contributed to this, but, as a recent report by the French Cour des Comptes demonstrated, no more than half of the deficit accumulated since 2007 comes from the crisis. And blaming excessive immigration or the proverbial 35-hour week laws implemented by the Socialist government more than twelve years ago seems quite dishonest. Not to mention the many scandals involving Mr Sarkozy and his government: the aborted nomination of the president’s son as the head of France’s most important financial centre (EPAD); the infamous post-colonialist speech in Senegal where Mr Sarkozy insisted that “the African man has never really entered history”; and, more recently, the accusations regarding his 2007 campaign finance.

“Watch out! The tenant refuses to leave the property”

But blaming Mr Sarkozy and his team is not good enough: one must look ahead and offer viable alternatives. A recent effort came from two articles in The Economist and Les Echos. Both criticised the current electoral campaign but showed a real contempt for France and its citizens, depicted as “lazy picnickers” (The Economist) and “losers”. The latter insult appeared on the front page of French rightwing financial newspaper Les Echos (there was a time when the right was patriotic…). As expected, both articles call for “radical spending cuts” and criticise France’s “eye-watering taxes”. This claim is actually inaccurate, as the top income tax rate is much lower in France (41%) than in Austria (50%) or Sweden (56%). The issue of taxation is a crucial one in times of economic crisis and soaring public debts but has been rarely mentioned during the current presidential campaign. Like other European countries, French taxes on high incomes and large corporations have gradually decreased in the last 20 years.

A prime example is the so-called “niche Copé” of 2004, named after the then Budget Minister Jean-François Copé: this massive tax exemption for large companies’ subsidiaries cost an estimated 22 billion euros to the French government over the past four years. This measure has been heavily criticised , including within Copé’s own party, and contributed to the inequity of the fiscal system.The 40 largest French companies (CAC 40) only pay an average 8% in corporate taxes, as opposed to 22% for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

This trend has been criticised by the Roosevelt 2012 platform, supported by a number of leftwing economists but also – more surprisingly – by prominent Social Democrat Michel Rocard and former football player Lilian Thuram. One of their proposals is to stop corporate and income tax cuts: according to their calculations, the state would earn an extra 10 billion euros every year if all tax cuts granted since 1995 were cancelled. This is very significant in the current economic context; besides, raising taxes – if only temporarily – does not have the adverse social effects of public spending cuts. François Bayrou has called for a 45% top income tax rate but this might prove insufficient. On the other hand, Hollande included an “exceptional” 75% tax on very high earners in his programme; however, this largely symbolic measure is financially insignificant and would not address the inequity of the French tax system. A top income tax rate of 55-60% and a real clampdown on corporate tax evasion would not be shocking measures in times of high public deficit. Both would help finance much needed industrial investment and social policies. None of this is mentioned by mainstream political parties or financial publications obsessed with spending cuts – poor J.M. Keynes must be turning in his grave…

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