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Expert Comment: Hollande's victory in French presidential election

French Flag Friday 11 May 2012

Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in European Politics, gives his views on the French presidential election.

My colleague Bill Jones recently wrote a comment on this site about the first round of the French presidential election. He noted that very little was being said in the campaign about France’s economic situation, and suggested that if the leading candidate, the Socialist Party’s François Hollande, was to go on to win it would worry Europe’s centre-right leaders and the international bond markets.

Well, Hollande has now duly completed his victory, and I certainly hope that it does create some concern for the centre-right and the financial markets. I have to take issue with my colleague here. I do not think the campaign glossed over economic issues. Instead, economic concerns were at the very heart of the election.

However, the economic argument being put across was not the neo-liberal, conservative one that has dominated European politics for the past twenty to thirty years. Instead, it was an argument based around trying to find an alternative to the severe cutback programmes that are blighting so many European societies at present.

It is for this reason that The Economist news magazine has been critical of Hollande, describing him last week as a “rather dangerous” man (28 April). But this is no more than should be expected from this source, because The Economist has always been a fervent advocate of neo-liberalism.

The fact is that the outcome of the French presidential election is a sign that the dominant consensus in European politics is being challenged. This was equally evident in the night’s other main electoral story, the Greek general election, which saw a huge surge in support for the left-wing Syriza party.

While still disconnected and inchoate, these are indications of people turning against the austerity programmes being enforced in most European countries – including, of course, Britain. This is not just some populist reaction against what the right likes to term ‘tough but necessary’ measures. Across the world, economists are calling for growth, investment and development as being the only way of climbing out of the continuing recession.

It is worth recalling how this recession came about. It was triggered not by irresponsible governments, but by irresponsible, unethical and catastrophically inept businesses. They persuaded centre-right governments to adopt neo-liberal policies and remove financial regulations. This gave them the freedom to concoct fundamentally unviable packages of loans and engendered a disastrous free-for-all.

But rather than let these private-sector failures endure their losses, the reaction has been to bail them out with massive subsidies from the public purse – a ludicrous ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’ approach. Essentially, the current unemployment, the cutbacks in wages and pensions, the reductions in expenditure in schools and hospitals across Europe are being driven through in order for the lifestyle and advantages of the rich to be protected.

The gap between rich and poor has “widened dramatically” (The Guardian, 23 November 2011), and while the vast majority of people have found themselves worse off in the four years that have passed since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, RBS and other banks, the richest groups in society have actually seen their wealth grow in the same period. While the rhetoric abounds that “we are all in this together”, that is flagrantly not the truth. In the week immediately after Hollande’s victory, it was revealed that pay for top executives in the UK had risen by 11% in a year, while attempts to curb tax evasion have failed to have any effect (The Guardian, 8 May 2012).

I do not expect instant or dramatic transformation, but the victory of Hollande might be a step towards building an alternative model, one which seeks to reduce that gap, to insist that it is not an acceptable situation to have a two-tier society with one tier living in luxury, the other dependent on whatever crumbs fall down to them.

What happens next? First of all, in France the presidential election will be followed in June by a general election for the National Assembly. We can expect success for Hollande’s Socialists, but also for the parties in the Left Front alliance, whose presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon won over 11 per cent in the first round of the presidential vote.

We can also expect to see a growing challenge to the European Fiscal Treaty, a programme that would enforce strict fiscal discipline rules for the euro-zone. The challenge is not being driven by a desire for ill-discipline, but by a feeling that policy options should not be set in concrete – and in particular, that these particular policy options are self-defeating and are causing far too much social pain.

Hollande will probably not prove very radical in office – there are already signs that he will find some compromise with German conservative leader Angela Merkel. But Hollande’s victory s part of a growing challenge to neo-liberal orthodoxy. The result in France needs to be seen alongside elections in Greece, in Slovakia, in Slovenia, in Denmark and elsewhere, where left-wing parties are increasingly winning support by opposing the policies of austerity. Another important date to watch for is the general election in the Netherlands in September, when the Socialist Party is expected to make further significant progress.

In her dealings with what was then the European Community, Margaret Thatcher expressed concern about Brussels allowing socialism ‘by the back door’. How wrong could she be? Instead, Brussels has welcomed neo-liberalism through its front door, and this has now come to dominate European Union policy. If Hollande can contribute to a growing challenge to this failed orthodoxy before it can do more harm, his election is to be very warmly welcomed.

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