“MY true adversary does not have a name, a face or a party,” said François Hollande, France’s likely next president. “He never puts forth his candidacy, but nevertheless he governs. My true adversary is the world of finance.”
No other leader of a major power would dare say such a thing. If Hollande, who could be France’s first Socialist president in 17 years, simply defies “the markets”, they will certainly punish him and France severely. However, it remains to be seen how he plays his hand.
Hollande still has one hurdle to cross before he is officially president-elect, but he beat the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in the first round of voting last week, when 10 candidates were running. In the run-off vote on May 6, the polls predict that he will trounce Sarkozy by a margin of 14-16 per cent.
Hollande is a shoo-in because in the second round his centre-left party will collect almost all the votes of parties to the left of the Socialists, and also most of the votes of the centrist candidates. Sarkozy leads a centre-right party, but he will have to pretend to be much harder right than he is for much the same reasons as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney does in the United States.
If Sarkozy does not spout anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, he will not even win over the 18 per cent of French voters who backed the far-right National Front a week ago. If he does talk like that, he will lose the swing voters in the centre — and he may still not get the endorsement of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who reckons that if Sarkozy loses the presidency his party will disintegrate, making her own party the dominant force on the right.
So it will be president Hollande, who recently said that “if the markets are worried (by my policies), I will tell them here and now that I will leave them with no space to act.” Tough words, but what does “no space to act” actually mean? Does it mean anything at all? The markets don’t think so, which is why they did not go into meltdown as soon as Hollande’s election became a certainty.
Hollande is certainly tougher and smarter than the ‘Mr Normal’ who he claims to be. His calm, modest manner presents a striking contrast to the hyperactivity, bad temper and sheer bling of Nicolas Sarkozy, but he graduated from France’s most respected post-graduate school for high flyers, the École Nationale d’Administration, and he has been in politics for more than thirty years.
For over a decade he was the leader of the famously fractious Socialist Party, and was nicknamed ‘Meccano-builder’ for his ability to bridge the endless personal and ideological disputes, a process he once likened to picking up dog turds. And he has not promised French voters the moon.
What Hollande has actually promised is slightly less austerity than Sarkozy. He will balance the French budget by 2017, rather than 2016. For symbolism’s sake he will introduce a new 75 per cent income tax band for people who earn more than a million euros, but he understands that bringing the budget deficit under control must be accomplished mainly by cutting spending, not raising taxes.
The markets will not have it any other way, and they have France in a corner. In order to cover the interest on its existing debt plus this year’s budget deficit, France must borrow almost one-fifth of its entire GDP this year, and the same again next year.
Most of that enormous sum must be borrowed from foreign lenders, so Hollande cannot afford to frighten them by radically changing the austerity policy he inherits from Sarkozy.
He says what he must to get elected, but in office Mr Normal is likely to conduct business as usual — or at least, that is what the markets think. It may be too simplistic a view.
Hollande doesn’t agree with the current European orthodoxy, because it has put the eurozone (the 17 out of 27 European Union members that use the euro ‘single currency’) into an economic death-spiral.