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France's Hollande Could be Secret Reformer

15 Mar 2012

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Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, reacts with supporters at the end of his campaign rally in Marseille


REUTERS

Despite his criticism of bankers and plan for a millionaires' tax, French Socialist, Francois Hollande could turn out to be a reforming president, his aides are keen to suggest.

On the campaign trail, Hollande espouses a traditional tax-and-spend platform to rally left-wing supporters and preserve his lead in most opinion polls ahead of an April-May presidential election.

But even as he dismays the business sector with planned tax rises and a broadside against the world of finance, Hollande has described himself as "pink", not "red", and aides say he would tread a pragmatic, centrist path in office.

Hollande would not be as bold as Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, whose 2003-05 labour reforms helped Germany prosper through Europe's debt crisis, nor embrace the "Third Way" pro-market ideology of Britain's Tony Blair.

Yet several aides who spoke to Reuters, most on condition of anonymity, said he is keen to nudge the Socialists out of an ideological rut that has distanced them from centre-left parties elsewhere in Europe, and to coax them into the 21st century.

"Hollande is a modern left-winger, but at the same time he's in touch with France," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, Socialist floor leader in the lower house of parliament, tipped for a government post if the party wins.

"He is pragmatic. He's flexible and he looks for compromise. He's not stuck in nostalgia for the 20th century, or the 19th century for that matter."

For example, Hollande aims to reform France's rigid labour market gradually through negotiation with trade unions.

But he needs to move cautiously, aware that the left last held the presidency 17 years ago under Francois Mitterrand, the sole president in the Socialist Party's 43-year history.

Mitterrand swept to power in 1981 on a Marxist-influenced platform of nationalisations and a generous welfare state but had to change course after two years when his policies sparked a run on the French franc.

Partly due to that history, Hollande is keen to stress his fiscal prudence. His manifesto calls for higher taxes on banks, big firms and the rich to help cut the public deficit while pumping more funds into education and job creation.

He also wants to cap executive pay, create a financial transaction tax and separate banks' retail and investment arms.

He launched his campaign by declaring that Big Finance was his real adversary and should pay for the global financial crisis, and he has called for a 75 percent top tax rate on income above 1 million euros a year.

Opinion polls show such rhetoric strikes a chord with left-leaning voters, including supporters of hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, credited with 10 percent in the polls. It also appeals to centrists fed up with economic gloom, high unemployment and a feeling that conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has shielded the rich with tax breaks.

Tags: Politics, World, France, Hollande, Reformer

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