If you listen carefully, you can hear it coming. With next Monday marking one year since François Hollande was elected French President, a tidal wave of I told-you-so’s and smugness is about to be visited upon us by Westminster’s commentariat.
It’s fair to say that most of them have never much liked the French president. And we are sure to be gleefully informed that the first year of his Presidency has been a disaster. It will invariably be held up as a stark warning to Labour against carrying any challenge to the austerity consensus into the next election.
It won’t surprise you to learn that upon closer inspection, things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that.
Hollande has certainly had a difficult time of it, sliding recently to 25 per cent approval in the polls. Much of this can be laid at the door of his one unambiguous failure – his inability to overcome German opposition to redrawing the EU’s fiscal pact towards a greater focus on growth. As a result, unemployment is stuck at around 10%, and consumer confidence is low. The Eurozone remains largely frozen.
Some of it is also his own personal style. Hollande’s more low key, unfashioned image and patient approach – once a selling point – has bored a nation who became used to the glitz and hyperactivity of the Sarkozy years (in much the same way that ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ rebounded on Brown).
But if he has failed to offer much hope at a European level, the same cannot be said about his record at home. For starters, he has already made good on most of his key campaign promises, such as the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, raising the minimum wage and setting up a Public Investment Bank to lend where banks won’t (which given time could prove crucial to the country’s recovery).
But it is on budgetary matters – tax and spend – where Hollande has offered something most markedly different. Contrary to received wisdom in parts of the British press, the French President never campaigned against the principle of deficit reduction; simply against the notion that this is best achieved through deep spending cuts and huge tax hikes on ordinary people (this is after all what austerity has come to mean). And it is here that his actions in government bear far greater scrutiny than the widely held, lazy caricature that he has bowed to 'inevitable' cuts.
In 2013, only a third of Hollande’s deficit reduction measures comes from reducing spending. And all of this is coming from departmental spending freezes, not deep cuts.
The rest comes from increased taxes, largely on big businesses, banks and wealthy individuals. This includes increased wealth taxes, alongside hikes on taxes on assets and dividends. A new 45 per cent top rate has been brought in for incomes over €150,000, while companies will have to pay 75 per cent tax on any salaries over €1 million (replacing the 75 per cent income tax rate struck down by France’s constitutional court). Big banks and oil companies have also been hit with special levies. Tax exemptions have been scrapped.
While weak growth across Europe has made things harder than expected, these measures will still see France’s deficit fall to 3.7 per cent in 2013, from 4.8 per cent in 2012. Hollande has also shown admirable flexibility, resisting pressure to bring in any further deficit reduction measures to meet draconian EU targets while the economy is still weak (he has instead delayed them).
The ratio between taxes and spending reductions will level up a little in 2014, and some entitlements may be means tested. But freezes are likely to continue to take precedence to significant cuts on the spending side.
Whatever one’s view of Hollande, to equate this with the medicine meted out by other Governments in Europe is fatuous. Compare it, for instance, to George Osborne’s approach, whose ratio of cuts to taxes is 80:20, with that 20 per cent borne by people on average incomes while millionaires pay less. It’s also a world away from the broad-based slash and burn policies being implemented in Italy or Greece. Low and middle income households in France have been protected, as have public services.
Here Labour can still draw positive lessons, as beyond the need for short-term stimulus now, they face up to longer-term decisions over whether to accept the enormous cuts currently pencilled in by the Tories for 2015 and beyond. The deficit faced by any incoming Labour government is likely to be of a similar order to that faced by the French President.
Drawing inspiration from Hollande, but outside the fiscal straight jack imposed on Eurozone countries, Labour could set a longer more flexible timetable for elimination of the deficit. Assuming they inherit low growth, they could then pledge a freeze on overall departmental spending. This would be tough but would cancel planned Tory cuts and shut down accusations of profligacy or ‘turning the taps back on’ in a relatively painless way, providing them space to talk more about growth and living standards. Beyond that, levies on the well off and big businesses (e.g Financial Transactions Tax, Land Value Tax, restoring the main rate of corporation tax etc) should go towards paying for the rest of deficit reduction.
Within this overall spending envelope, further tax rises on the top (a 50p rate, mansion tax etc) could pay for tax cuts for those on low and middle incomes, aiding demand. Growth measures requiring capital spend would then be funded by taking money from budgets with the least impact on domestic demand (cuts in defence and international development to pay for a large house building programme, for instance).
There are many areas, of course, where Miliband will want and need to do the exact opposite of Hollande. He will have to be careful to not be seen to over-promise, given the public’s already brittle faith in politics. But a closer reading of François Hollande than we will be afforded in our newspapers reveals an important truth; one that can be rescued from the carnage of an otherwise difficult first year for the Socialist President. When it comes to how, when and on whose backs the national books are balanced, there are still choices.