Few countries in the world offer a political canvas as eccentric as France’s. There are ten candidates on the ballot for this Sunday’s presidential election: Six of them are socialists of one stripe or another, one is an avowed Communist, and another represents the openly racist and generally execrable Front National. The remaining two are centrists in that peculiarly French way; only one of them has a shot, and he will, in all likelihood, lose.
About Sunday’s election, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that Nicolas Sarkozy’s days as premier are numbered. He and his leading foe, François Hollande, have left the remaining contenders behind, but M. Sarkozy is trailing in head-to-head polls by an average of 15 points, meaning he will almost certainly be beaten in a run-off. This will be a shame, for the end of his tenure will be the end of France’s brief flirtation with economic reform.
The election of the front-runner, François Hollande, the candidate of the left-wing Parti Socialiste, would perhaps represent a return to the France of old — and at a time when the country, crippled with debt and subject to the ill fortunes of the euro, cannot afford to make any mistakes. Although it is sometimes difficult to tell which of M. Hollande’s policies are serious and which are the product of spontaneous overexcitement — the candidate has an intriguing habit of making things up on the spot, leaving his team floundering — his is a platform whose philosophical home is on the hard left.
At the Paris International Agricultural Show earlier in the year, M. Hollande told journalists that the top income-tax rate should be 75 percent, levied at the €1 million mark. “It is not possible to have that level of income,” he argued emphatically, before adding a characteristic shrug: “How can we accept it?” For good measure, he also pledged to tax at 45 percent — up from today’s 41 percent rate — those earning more than €150,000 a year.
If these promises are fulfilled, it will do serious damage to the incumbent president’s hard-won reforms. Sarkozy promised a “rupture” with the past when he took office in 2007. He introduced €29 billion of tax breaks into the code and, lamenting that many of France’s celebrities and entrepreneurs lived abroad, attempted to seduce them back into the country with the imposition of a “tax shield” that capped the total amount any individual could pay in income taxes at 50 percent of their income.
And with the help of a rare majority in parliament in 2008, M. Sarkozy pushed through the controversial “loi de modernisation de l’économie,” which eased up France’s notoriously difficult business climate. The law made it easier to start companies, dramatically reduced the involvement of the state in setting retail prices, removed regulations that prevented employees from working more than a set number of hours (35 in most industries), and removed taxes on income earned in overtime.