French Socialists Promise Growth, Fiscal Restraint

The left’s presidential candidates tried to convince voters that they will revive economic growth and reduce public expenditures.

France’s Socialist Party’s presidential hopefuls tried to convince voters on Thursday night that they could revive growth and would address the nation’s mounting debt burden without cutting spending.

Instead of promoting austerity like President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose governments is actually raising taxes far more than it’s reducing expenditures, the left’s presidential contenders steered clear of specific spending cuts during a televised debate and offered targeted stimulus to resuscitate the sputtering French economy.

At the same time, the candidates vowed no heavy deficit spending. “I won’t be president to push us back into debt,” said François Hollande, former Socialist Party boss, who was combative in an interview that preceded the debate but appeared managerial during exchanges with the other candidates which were altogether subdued in tone and light on substance.

The current party leader Martine Aubry said that she knows “how to say no,” to more public spending, presumably. She and Hollande are perceived as the frontrunners with Ségolène Royal, the socialist presidential candidate defeated in 2007, also running.

Hollande could win 40 percent of the left-wing vote according to a survey published in the daily Libération on the morning of the debate. Aubry lagged behind at 22 percent. Her campaign is geared to party activists, hoping to rally as many sympathizers as possible during the primary. Hollande, by contrast, presents himself as the moderate and more electable candidate. It’s a strategy that appears to be working although Aubry was calmer and almost presidential during Thursday’s debate.

Unlike most of her fellow contenders, Aubry didn’t focus on France’s dire fiscal situation but stressed that the priority should be reviving business activity. Eliminating special tax deductions and exemptions would be a first step toward making France more competitive, she suggested.

Boosting French competitiveness in Europe would also require raising the retirement age and introducing a forty hour work week however — two reform measure that are opposed by Aubry. In fact, she campaigns on bringing down the pension age back to sixty after it was raised to 62 by Sarkozy this year while as labor minister during the 1990s, she personally pushed for a 35 hour work week.

During the debate, Aubry admitted that the pension age could probably not come down for everybody anymore but did vow to fight for people with low-income and labor-intensive jobs.

No French government has managed to balance its books since the 1970s, let alone produce a surplus, yet many of the left’s presidential contenders promised to rein in spending.

They all targeted banks and speculators. Royal said she would make them “obey” her and championed “fiscal justice,” or tax hikes for the wealthy although she praised French entrepreneurship at the same time. Hollande offered a “reform tax” but balked at questions about making the rich pay more. If he hopes to win over moderate votes who were previously rooting for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, he can’t afford to engage in class warfare.

The socialists suffered a major setback in May when the popular head of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York on an attempted rage charge which has since been dismissed. Strauss-Kahn won’t be able to stand for election anymore as the deadline for candidates to enter the race was in July.

The Socialist Party’s primary elections are scheduled for next month which, for the first time in its history, will be open to all French voters who declare themselves left of center. Unless one of the candidates wins an outright majority of the votes, which is unlikely, a runoff between the top two contenders will take place on October 16.

Whoever emerges as the candidate stands a good chance of ousting the incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy as his Union pour un mouvement populaire is unpopular and has been so for many months.

The socialists most recently scored a victory against the conservatives in March when they attained majorities in virtually all of France’s cantons in regional elections. The UMP won 20 percent of votes cast nationwide at the time while the socialist won 36 percent. The far-right Front national gained 12 percent and even polled at 17 percent earlier this year.

Despite careful attempts at deregulating the behemoth French state early in his term, Sarkozy appeared to abandoned laissez-faire in the wake of he 2008 financial crisis and has since complained that nothing went to “labor” in the preceding decade when bankers supposedly enriched themselves at the expense of the working man.

The Front national is no less critical of “global liberalism” under the leadership of Marine Le Pen. Her protectionist economic policy seems part of an attempt to appeal to blue-collar voters which could enable the populist to steal crucial votes from Sarkozy’s UMP in elections next year.

For all the president’s denunciations of “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon capitalism,” French voters in 2012 may well prefer a genuine socialist over a poor imitation of one which could eat into Sarkozy’s centrist base.