François Hollande: Perceptions from Cambridge

17 May 2013

It has been year a year since Francois Hollande came to power. Today, however, France’s first socialist president in 17 years is considered one of the most unpopular in the country’s history, with approval ratings at an all-time-low of 27% according to recent polls.

Included in Hollande’s more unpopular economic reforms were the proposed 75% tax rates on earnings of over one million euros. Although this levy was deemed unconstitutional, in March Hollande announced that employers (as opposed to employees) would pay the proposed tax sum. It was the fear of such a policy led many French citizens to move abroad, including billionaire actor Gerard Depardieu. The media has widely reported the exodus of France’s wealthiest and its educated youth, particularly to the UK, Belgium and Switzerland. However, this phenomenon is rather debatable since the movement of French nationals to the UK has been taking place over the last twenty years, in part due to the lucrative attraction of the City and the UK’s own flexible employment laws.

Speaking to The Cambridge Student, Laetitia Schwab, a French citizen who grew up in London and is currently studying for an MPhil in Clinical Science, explained, “Many people moved to London at the end of the year fearing the heavy taxing of the wealthy,” before adding, “The French Lycee in London is expanding its current campus in South Kensington to Camden, and has increased the planned new places from 200 to 500 next year. London is the seventh biggest French city population-wise and South Kensington has become a ‘petit Paris’.”

The start of May also saw protests led by members of several left-wing parties, including Jean-Luc Melenchon, founder of the Front de Gauche (Left Front) against both European austerity measures and Hollande’s various other economic policies such as the 20 billion euro tax credit to fund private businesses. These parties also protested against the recent scandal involving Jerome Cahuzac, the budget minister in charge of the crackdown on tax evasion who is currently being investigated for tax fraud over a certain Swiss bank account. To add to the unrest, earlier this year thousands flocked to the streets in protest against gay marriage laws, revealing a highly conservative and religious underside to French society which usually prides itself on its secularism and liberalism.

Hollande is currently criticised from both sides as well as Germany for his ambiguous strategy aimed at lowering France’s budget deficit to 3% of the country’s GDP. Although he initially came to power taxing companies and the wealthy, the President is now speaking of welfare reform, spending cuts, and state funding of private business.

Speaking separately to TCS, Thomas Godard, a PhD candidate in French Linguistics and member of the Socialist Party, observed, “Hollande has made a huge number reforms, many of which reverse Sarkozy’s strategies such as reducing the age of retirement to 60, increasing funding in education and the police. Although these are unpopular in the short term, I believe these measures will come to fruition in the long run.” Godard also cited the election of the socialist candidate Axelle Lemarie – who visited Cambridge last year – as MP for French citizens in Northern Europe, explaining, “Although Sarkozy introduced international MPs with the idea of gaining more votes, eight of these eleven seats were won by the Parti Socialiste.” While this success implies a strong animosity against the outgoing President Sarkozy, the the election of a socialist candidate also suggests that the influx of French citizens to the UK was not fuelled by lower taxes, but as a natural result of open European borders in a globalised world.

While Hollande’s current economic policies thus seem to be viewed by French students studying at Cambridge with varying degrees of scepticism and optimism, both Schwab and Godard did agree fundamentally on one level – the high living standards and quality of France’s social welfare system. How these are to be maintained, however, is still up for debate.

Bea Priest

Photo – NeraCoulis2012