Can Socialism Fix France?

By Will Marshall

When Republicans call President Obama a 'socialist,' it says more about their lunge to the right than Obama's policies. Besides, if they want to see what a real socialist looks like, they should turn to a country they love to hate: France.

Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party leader, has a substantial lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy heading toward their second round showdown on May 6, and stands a good chance of becoming France's first Socialist President in 17 years.

As Reds go, Hollande is not especially menacing – 'bland' is how he's usually described. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the gruff socialist from Vermont, is scarier.

But bland is what the French seem to want after Sarkozy, who is widely reviled as a vain and vulgar celebrity-president with a trophy wife – a Gallic Donald Trump. Hollande promises to be 'Mr. Normal' and restore dignity in the Elysée Palace.

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Although he nipped Sarkozy in the first round of voting last Sunday, it's wrong to interpret the result as a sharp left turn for France – especially since the right actually won more votes. The big shock, in fact, was the strong showing by the nativist National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen, which finished a strong third with 18 percent of the vote. Ex-Communists of the new Left Front won just 11 percent, while a centrist party finished dead last.

What the vote actually showed was an angry populism flaring on both ends of the political spectrum, variously directed against Muslim immigrants, Parisian elites, globalization and European demands for austerity. By drawing a bead on the latter, Hollande hopes to unite the left and peel off enough National Front voters to deny Sarkozy a second term.

Many working class voters – traditionally the left's political base – have been gravitating toward the National Front's message, which melds anti-establishment and anti-Europe themes (Le Pen wants France to drop the Euro) with concerns about the 'Islamification' of France. Sounding very much like a U.S. liberal lamenting the defection of blue collar voters to the GOP, Hollande urges French workers to 'find their way back to the side of progress, of equality, of change, of shared effort, of justice, because they are against privilege, against financial globalization, against a failing Europe.'

The main driver of voter discontent, however, is the French economy. It's suffering from lackluster growth, high unemployment (10 percent), and swollen trade and budget deficits. And there's the specter of Europe's sovereign debt crisis, which originated in the small economies of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, but now threatens to engulf Spain.

Hollande insists that economic growth, not austerity, must be the prime imperative for both France and Europe. He says he will renegotiate the European fiscal treaty that Germany insists is necessary to stabilize government finances across the Eurozone. He also vows to protect France's 'social model' from the dictates of bond markets and financiers.

For all his anti-market rhetoric, however, Hollande is careful not to spook the financial markets too much. After all, France must continue to borrow heavily from foreign banks to keep its economy afloat too. And Hollande has pledged to balance France's budget in 2017, just one year after Sarkozy proposes to reach that goal.

How will he do that? By jacking up taxes to heights that make Obama's 'Buffett rule' seem pretty tame. Hollande wants a top rate of 75 percent (ours in 35 percent). In fairness, though, all candidates left to right favored higher taxes on the rich. Hollande looks downright moderate next to the Left Front, which demanded a tax rate of 100 percent on the wealthy – confiscation of all their earnings. Now that's class warfare!

Hollande is certainly right that economic growth is what France needs, but his growth agenda comes straight out of the old socialist handbook. It calls for more government spending to create jobs, including slots for 60,000 new teachers. Yet France doesn't seem to be suffering from a stingy government, not when public spending gobbles up nearly 57 percent of GDP (compared to around 39 percent here). It seems doubtful that France's unreconstructed Socialists can offer what the country really needs – a credible program of deep structural reforms that create incentives for work and investment, that promote labor mobility, that trim social welfare spending, and, above all, that create an economic climate more conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship.

This is the path Germany chose under a Social Democratic Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and which has made it Europe's most successful economy. It is the 'rupture' with statist stagnation that Sarkozy promised when he ran in 2007, but failed to deliver.

Now France's Socialists may get their turn. Rather than fight Germany over austerity, they'd be better off emulating the German model for growth.

Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute.

(AP Photo)

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