Francois Hollande’s sins are more those of omission than commission. The headlines might suggest otherwise. The socialist challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s next president has promised to cut the pension age to 60, tax the rich at 75 percent, renegotiate Europe’s fiscal treaty and launch a war on bankers. But these pledges aren’t as bad as they look. The real problem is that Hollande, who has a strong lead in the opinion polls, isn’t addressing the need to reform the country’s welfare state.
Hollande is a moderate. Like Sarkozy, for example, he is promising to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent next year, from 5.8 percent as estimated by the European Commission in 2011. But he still had to throw the left some red meat in the election campaign, which runs until May. That’s not just to prevent votes drifting to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate. It’s also to avoid being outflanked by Sarkozy’s own populist attacks on corporate fat cats and bankers.
Still, the precise pledges probably aren’t what they seem, as I discovered on a trip to Paris last month.
Look at pensions. Hollande has said he’ll cut the pension age from 62 to 60 – at a time when Germany and other countries are raising theirs to 65 or more. But the fine print is more nuanced. This lower retirement age will only apply to people who have worked 41.5 years – in other words, since the age of 18. Given that increasingly people start working later, less than 5 percent of the workforce is affected, according to UBS.
Or take the 75 percent tax rate on income above 1 million euros. If Hollande as president really instituted such a rate, he would drive most of France’s remaining big earners off shore. But within hours of advocating the measure, an advisor was saying off the record that it might last only a few years. By the time it comes to implementation, enough exceptions and loopholes could also have been introduced to reduce the measure’s real bite.