Will a socialist victory turn the tide in Europe?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012 20:15
Richard Price, Leyton & Wanstead CLP, looks at what the polls promise in the French presidential election.

Unless the opinion polls are radically wrong, France will elect François Hollande as its first Socialist president since 1988 in the second round of voting on 6th May. In a Europe dominated by the right, this will have an impact well beyond France’s borders.

However, in an election driven more by dislike of Sarkozy than by enthusiasm for his main opponent, there are no grounds for complacency on the left. Marine Le Pen, whose strong showing is based on modernising and “detoxifying” the Front National brand, has eaten into former Communist, Socialist and public sector strongholds. Her campaign has combined exploiting working class grievances with anti-EU and anti-immigrant populism.

Hollande, whose background is steeped in centre ground Socialist Party management, has surprised many by steering to the left. “My true adversary,” he told a rally, “is the world of finance.” Although he aims to eliminate the deficit by 2017, his manifesto calls for higher taxes for the richest 5%: 40% on incomes over €150,000 and 75% over €1 million. Hollande also proposes closing tax loopholes, greater financial regulation, a levy on financial transactions, the defence of public services, the creation of a Public Investment Bank, job creation (especially for young people), a major house building programme and 60,000 new posts in education – a key issue in a country where one in six now leave school with no qualifications.

Amid comparisons with Thatcher, Sarkozy swept to power in 2007 pledging to restore French greatness, get France back to work, end privileged public sector pensions, cut taxes, liberalise the labour market and take steps to weaken strikes. He succeeded in cutting taxes for the rich and undermining the 35 hour week, but his popularity and credibility has been seriously undermined by the world recession.

The Greek debt crisis has severely affected France’s major financial institutions, with BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Axa heavily exposed. By the end of 2010, French banks were owed €283 billion out of Italy’s €626 billion debt. They also have substantial Spanish, Irish and Portuguese debts on their balance sheets.

The upshot was the loss of France’s AAA credit rating in January this year. France’s two largest banks, BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole have seen their share values plummet. BNP Paribas’s profits halved in 2011, while Crédit Agricole lost €1.1 billion. Unemployment has climbed from 7.5% in February 2008 to a 12-year high of 10%, with youth unemployment growing rapidly.

Against this background, the Sarkozy-Bruni bling-bling lifestyle has played very badly, with stories of lavish entertaining, £150,000 of public money spent on security guards for his DJ son Pierre, and a fleet of 121 cars at the Élysée Palace on top of a string of ministerial hospitality scandals. Already hit by a party funding scandal involving France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, fresh accusations have been made claiming Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign was financed by €50 million from Colonel Gaddafi.

The early weeks of the campaign saw Sarkozy dogged by inept blunders – his delayed announcement that he intended to run, a rude altercation with a Pyrenean farmer, taking refuge from an angry crowd in a bar in the Basque country. Seemingly marooned on 25%, four points behind Hollande and with Le Pen a strong third, Sarkozy reached for the dog whistle and shifted his campaign to the right.

On 6th March, Prime Minister François Fillon raised the issue of halal and kosher meat, prompting dignified protests from Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim and the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Mohammed Moussaoui, against being used as electoral scapegoats. A day later, in a televised debate, Sarkozy – in a move clearly intended to woo Front National voters – claimed there are “too many foreigners” in France, that integration is breaking down, that he will halve immigration and introduce a ten-year qualifying period for some social benefits. This isn’t new territory for Sarkozy. In 2005 he notoriously described urban youth as “louts and rabble”, sparking widespread rioting.

The effect was immediate: for the first time since Hollande was selected in October last year, an opinion poll showed Sarkozy marginally ahead, although another poll showed Hollande’s lead restored. Most polls give Hollande a clear victory in the second round run-off by about 56% to 44%.

Although the votes of the right outnumber those of the left, such is the history of infighting – both between different centre right parties and between the centre right and the Front National – that it is harder to herd them behind a single candidate. A significant proportion of the Front National’s support will not transfer to Sarkozy. Much will depend on the centre right Democratic Movement of François Bayrou, polling respectably around 13%.

To the left of the Socialist Party it’s been all change. At the 2002 election, Trotskyist candidates polled 10.44%. In 2007 this fell to 5.75%. This time round the representatives of Lutte Ouvrière and the still born New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) will be lucky to poll 2% between them. The surprise of the campaign has been the support for ex-Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left Front – a coalition of the Communist Party (PCF), Mélenchon’s small Left Party and a dissident faction of the NPA. Touching 10%, this is a dramatic reversal from the PCF’s disastrous result in 2007, when it polled 1.93%.

Mélenchon’s manifesto calls for immediate pay rises, a ban on redundancies in companies that have paid dividends to shareholders, the re-establishment of retirement at 60, the reintroduction of the 35-hour week, rises in student grants, free medical care, and no rent rises. Although the main trade union confederation, the CGT, has officially endorsed Hollande, it has also backed the Left Front in the legislative elections that follow the presidential election. Mélenchon’s campaign has clearly struck a chord among sections of workers, and his rallies have been well attended, including one of 4,000 in Besançon. If Hollande does win, this pressure from the left can only assist the long-overdue reforging of French politics and guard against the kind of retreat that followed the radical measures taken by Mitterand in 1981-83.

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