Facing an uphill battle to win Sunday’s presidential election, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is trying desperately to cast his left-wing opponent as an old school socialist who will try to tax and spend his way out of the nation’s budget woes.
During an almost three hour televised debate on Wednesday night, the incumbent attacked his Socialist Party challenger François Hollande at length on economic policy, characterizing his plan as one of “crazy overspending.” He specifically cited Hollande’s pledge to hire 60,000 additional civil servants which Sarkozy lamented would only exacerbate France’s fiscal shortfall.
Hollande has said that he will not endeavor to reduce the deficit to under 3 percent of gross domestic product as is demanded by eurozone budget rules unless December’s fiscal compact is revised to put more emphasis on growth.
In a speech to supporters in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris earlier this week, Sarkozy insisted that only spending restraint will save France from the fate that Greece and Spain, heavily indebted eurozone states, have suffered. Both have had to implement deep budget cuts to avert a sovereign default.
The president added, “We don’t want jealousy. We don’t want egalitarianism. We don’t want bitterness. We don’t want hatred. We don’t want class war. We don’t want socialism.”
Hollande defended his push for a more expansionary fiscal policy on Wednesday night by arguing that “Europe is today facing a possible resurgence of the crisis with generalized austerity. That’s what I don’t want.”
The conservative newspaper Le Figaro reiterated the president’s criticism of Hollande, describing him as an “old timer” in its editorial on Thursday while championing Sarkozy as a “modernist.”
The left leaning Libération, by contrast, predictably reported that Hollande had wiped the floor, headlining, “Hollande presides the debate.”
The socialist kept bringing the incumbent president back to his record, then developed his proposals, which conferred an authority that often irritated his adversary.
Hollande pledged to be “the president of unity” and appeared calm and confident whereas Sarkozy is seen as the “hyper president” who acts erratically and lashes out at opponents. He seemed reluctant to debate his stewardship of the French economy and for good reason. Despite his ominous warnings of what negative effects Hollande’s leftist policies will have on growth, Sarkozy himself has championed protectionist policies on the campaign trail and achieved markedly little reforms in his five years as president, despite promises to enact liberalizations.
The French economy contracted by 2.7 percent in 2009 and has since struggled to recover. The government had a €96 billion shortfall in 2011 which was equivalent to 7.1 percent of GDP. The deficit is expected to come out at 6 percent for the fiscal year 2012. In January, the country lost its top credit rating from the Standard and Poor’s agency.
The conservative government of Sarkozy’s party has tried to mend the deficit largely by raising taxes on consumption. That hasn’t stopped the president from claiming that an income tax hike, as favored by Hollande, would “discourage work” and “isolate France from the rest of the world.”
If Hollande wins the second round of the president election this weekend, which opinion polls suggest is likely, his Socialist Party will also probably secure a majority in parliament in June’s legislative elections. The right-wing vote could be split if the nationalist Front national claims as big as a share of the vote as its standard-bearer Marine Le Pen did in the first round of the presidential poll last month, foreboding major losses for Sarkozy’s conservatives.