France has elected only the second Socialist president in its history -- the first being Francois Mitterrand, who spent 14 years in the driver's seat back when French presidential terms lasted seven years rather than five, and who made a hard-right turn away from economic socialism and toward spending cuts after his first two years in office. The best France can hope for now is that the newly elected Francois Hollande takes a similar plunge into a pothole of pragmatism and douses any budding socialist ideas.
France is deeply in debt, so it's really not the time to experiment with an ideology that has a poor track record outside of countries that are comparatively small and/or limited in freedoms. And it would be a mistake for those viewing France's elections from the outside to presume that Hollande doesn't actually know this himself.
I'd like to give Hollande a generous amount of rope in the wake of this election, if only to make an amusing yo-yo when he ends up warranting a tug.
It's hard to tell what Hollande will end up doing policy-wise, since there's little record by which to assess the validity of his campaign promises. Hailing from Correze -- the same rural south-central department that spawned former President Jacques Chirac -- Hollande has held a lot of political positions: mayor of Tulle, federal legislator, first secretary of the Socialist Party. However, nothing really stands out in his background. The ability to spend three decades in politics and remain so benign is an accomplishment in itself and suggests a certain pragmatism. An ideologically driven politician would have long ago drawn fire. Hollande never really has. He's not flashy, not brash -- he just is. Period.
The markets appeared to collectively yawn in the wake of Hollande's election. Perhaps it's a sign that regardless of who's captain of the ship, it's still considered to be on a crash course with the iceberg. Nonetheless, it's hard to denounce the "socialism" of a platform that includes raising funds for new housing construction by raising limits on personal investment amounts from which the funds are derived, cutting taxes for small and medium-sized businesses, refusing to increase state-provided daycare, and decentralizing and downloading power to the regions and away from Paris. But these measures are tempered by proposals to raise taxes on those making more than 150,000 euros annually and to stick anyone making more than 1 million euros a year with a 75 percent marginal rate. "It is patriotic to agree to pay a supplementary tax to get the country back on its feet," Hollande has said.
As Nicolas Sarkozy said to his challenger during a debate: "Are you aware we are in an open world?"
Giving the middle class tax breaks while tempting their employers to leave en masse will hardly improve the current situation. The markets know this, and apparently don't take Hollande's most Socialist proposals seriously. Perhaps it's assumed that Hollande understands this and was only throwing Socialists some class-warfare red meat for campaign purposes, as the French love the idea of a good aristocratic guillotining. If it turns out that he was actually serious in his proposals, it can only be hoped that he'll spend most of his first term on a golf course somewhere, or hiking the Alps.
So what made the French veer left at a time when Europe is largely veering right? A vote for Hollande was not a vote for socialism, but rather a manifestation of frustration with the current state of affairs. An Ipsos poll conducted on election day found that 55 percent of Hollande voters elected him to "stop Sarkozy from being re-elected," versus 45 percent who "wanted (Hollande) to be president." Only 46 percent of Sarkozy's voters supported him for the purpose of keeping Hollande out.
As voter income increased, the likelihood of voting for Hollande decreased, suggesting that some voters don't understand the trickle-down repercussions of business owners leaving and taking private-sector jobs with them -- particularly in a country that really can't afford to increase the state payroll, with 56 percent of the country's GDP already going toward maintain public spending.
Let's hope Hollande is intelligent and self-aware enough to realize that a 3 percent victory margin in the election he just won is primarily due to the fact that he is not Sarkozy. It's not a resounding mandate in favor of socialism, but rather a mass plea for thoughtful and pragmatic stewardship. If he understands this, then may end up doing all right. If not, he can be sure the French will be ready with the guillotine -- as they always are.