A fiercely left-wing leader to strike fear into the hearts of France’s rich

The Independent - 07 May 2012

France will be waking up today to its first Socialist President for 17 years – and bracing for radical change. There are all kinds of reasons why one might fear a François Hollande presidency, especially if you are a prosperous French person.

The 57-year-old Socialist has openly admitted that he “does not like the rich” and declared that “my real enemy is the world of finance”. This means taxing the wealthy by up to 75 per cent, curtailing the activities of Paris as a centre for financial dealing, and ploughing millions into creating more civil service jobs.

Add an explicit threat to renegotiate the euro pact to replace austerity with “growth-creating” spending, and you have one of the most vehemently left-wing programmes in recent history.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the woman at the centre of the Franco-German economic powerhouse which has dominated Europe – was at one stage even threatening to campaign for her conservative ally, Nicolas Sarkozy, against Mr Hollande.

Caution is justified, though one thing Mr Hollande will not repeat is the disastrous tax-and-spend policies introduced by France’s last Socialist President, François Mitterrand, in 1981. He was soon forced into a humiliating U-turn, and into sharing power with the right as the Communists quit his cabinet in protest.

In contrast, Mr Hollande will focus on solving the euro crisis and reversing a Gallic economic decline widely blamed on a failed capitalist system, and particularly a rotten banking sector.

Just as pertinently, he will seek to heal divides caused by five years of the most unpopular head of state in post-war history.

Mr Sarkozy continually stigmatised perceived undesirables, from France’s six-million-strong Muslim community to Roma Travellers, whom his administration regularly deported.

The diminutive conservative has claimed Mr Hollande is an incompetent “liar” who will “bankrupt France”, but the caricature of an untrustworthy leftist is wide of the mark.

Mr Hollande is an Enarque – a product of ENA (L’École Nationale d’Administration) France’s elite “rulers’ academy”.

He came seventh in his year, above former conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and is by no means the grey, provincial local government apparatchik his detractors claim.

Mr Hollande styles himself as a “social democrat” and not as any kind of revolutionary.

“I want to initiate a change in society in the long term,” is how he put it earlier this month, as he outlined a programme which was far more pragmatic than ideological.

Mr Hollande’s commitment to equality is evident in his promise to introduce parity between men and women in his cabinet, and create a ministry of women’s rights. Efforts will also be made to promote equal pay between the sexes. He will bring under-represented minorities into government, and work to make the Republic more egalitarian.

Managing France is a near-impossible task at the best of times, and the current warnings of economic chaos and social disorder are no worse than those levelled at Mr Sarkozy five years ago.

François Hollande is going to have an extremely rough time, but he should not be written off as easily as some would like.

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