Hollande forced into U-turn after France's "Pigeons" swoop on tax plan

Atlas shrugs in France, and wins.

François Hollande was pressured into reneging on a highly unpopular tax bill on Thursday after fiscal changes outlined in the 2013 budget provoked uproar amongst France’s entrepreneurial sector.

The climb-down came after a viral barrage launched by a group of web entrepreneurs calling themselves ‘Les Pigeons’ (French slang for ‘chumps’). The movement has garnered a significant wave of support, with almost 63,000 members on Facebook alone and the hashtag #geonpi trending worldwide on Twitter.

At present, French entrepreneurs pay 19 per cent capital gains tax (plus 15.5 per cent in social security contributions). New measures announced in the September 28th budget pledged to bring capital tax in line with income tax, meaning that start-ups that take in over €150,000 annually (most of them) would be forced to pay a whopping 45 per cent in capital gains tax, practically double the current amount. When added to the mandatory 15.5 per cent in social contributions, the total tax rate clocks in at a staggering 60 per cent.

To put that into perspective, the average European capital gains tax lies somewhere between 18 and 25 per cent, with maximum rates set in the UK (28 per cent) and Germany (26.4 per cent).

"Les Pigeons" protest that such shifts in the country’s fiscal policy are unfairly skewed against the startup community. Commentators warn that such tax increases could decapitate France’s entrepreneurial base, choking innovation and rendering small businesses creation almost entirely untenable.

Crucially, Hollande’s decision to introduce such exorbitant tax hikes represents a fundamental backtrack on earlier campaign pledges to re-balance taxes in favour of startups, leaving many entrepreneurs asking themselves if they still have a future in France.

“The government thinks France’s entrepreneurs are pigeons”, the movement’s Facebook page declares. “Anti-economic policies are crushing the entrepreneurial spirit and exposing France to a big risk”.

The formidable lobbying force of the ‘Pigeons’ movement led to finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, setting up emergency talks with entrepreneurs last Thursday to negotiate changes to the tax bill.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we want to punish the Pigeons”, a Hollande representative told Reuters. “We’ll find a solution … the Pigeons should return to their nest”.

However, despite the climb-down, Hollande has set a dangerous precedent. By alienating France’s thriving entrepreneurial community, he runs the risk of squandering the sector’s promising economic potential. A study of 108 French SMEs revealed a drastic 33 per cent growth in revenue from €753m in 2010 to €1bn in 2011. These impressive growth rates ran parallel to a 24 per cent increase in employment figures, with most workers employed under a CDI contract - the strongest of its type in France.

The decision to saddle such a burgeoning sector with a salvo of taxes seems confusing at a time when many of country’s larger corporations find themselves struggling to remain competitive. Peugeot and Bouygues have already laid off thousands this summer and the mood in the French business community is souring. Hollande is alienating small business precisely when he needs them to drive growth.

Such economic oversight comes at a bad time for Hollande. With unemployment at a 13-year high and 2013 growth forecasted at shocking -0.2 per cent, Hollande’s perceived pursuit of an anti-capitalist, anti-economic agenda won’t do him any favours - especially if he is to fulfill his election promise to hoist the French economy back on its feet.

Concerns are rising in France that the government’s strident model of budgetary rigour is simply incompatible with nurturing a flourishing entrepreneurial sector.

For François, the Honeymoon has ended abruptly. And with his approval rating plummeting from 56 to 41 per cent since his inauguration, he needs all the friends he can get.

François Hollande. Photo: Parti Socialiste

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt