Don't look to François Hollande for inspiration, Ed

The French Socialist leader is a throwback, not a pioneer.

On Wednesday, François Hollande’s budget announced the doubling of a tax already planned by Nicolas Sarkozy, giving a sliver to the state of certain transactions executed in financial markets. So what, you say. Banks can afford it, can’t they? Besides, they messed up: they should pay. But it’s not that simple: like VAT or any other sales tax, the cost is simply passed on to the buyer; a paltry half-billion euros will be raised annually and the law is full of loopholes. Plus, the original Sarkozy tax was only scheduled to come into force the same day, so no-one yet knows what the effects are.

Clearly, there is a political point being made that banks must pay for their sins, but: at what cost? The advantages of a financial transactions tax are unproven, to say the least. At best, it seems like posturing: at worst, it adds to the cost of companies, and the country, raising capital, affecting growth and competitiveness. Plus, with a unilateral move, there is always the danger that people will simply take their business elsewhere, which is why no-one here – not even Miliband –  is suggesting such a unilateral tax for the City, a financial centre which easily dwarfs Paris.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good moment to take a closer look at the Hollande administration. He has, at least, one sensible positive: his belief that growth is the key rather than austerity. Good. However, unlike the UK, Eurozone rules cap his borrowing, meaning next year he needs to make €33bn of cuts. So one wonders how he can fulfil pledges which require him to spend to achieve that growth.

Then there’s his manifesto proposal for a 75 per cent “super tax” for earnings over €1m, a move not seen in Britain since the days of Denis Healey (that said, his own advisor, Harvard’s Prof. Philippe Aghion, admits it was probably just an electoral sop to the left that he didn’t really mean). But many suggested that Hollande’s manifesto largely comprised things he would not really implement, and which he now has. And these are nothing compared to Hollande’s decision to lower the national retirement age from 62 to 60, which gives an insight into some very flawed thinking, because it doesn’t seem to make sense at the level of basic maths. The explanation is quite simple and goes like this:

If I pay a portion of my salary towards a pension, I create a pot, which the government looks after for me. When I retire, that pot buys me a pension until I die, the level of which depends on the size of the pot. Four things determine the size of my pot: the percentage I pay in from my salary; the number of years; the amount I work each year (working hours, holidays, and so on); and the fourth and final thing is the number of years I’m likely to live – the more years, the bigger pot I’ll need.

The problem is in the fourth factor. Most national pension systems in the western world are broke, and are on the verge of not being able to pay out to all the pensioners. They didn’t quite count on so many people staying alive so long, so they under-provided. Most governments are therefore trying to find ways to fund the “pensions time-bomb”, by getting more money into each person’s pot.

So, what you’ve got to do is change one of the first three factors. But in France, the amount you work each year is already fixed at a relatively low level, because of its uniquely-constricting thirty-five hour week and generous statutory holidays. Then there’s the number of years you work, which in France we have just reduced by two. That leaves only one thing: to increase national insurance; raise taxes on those who are working to pay for those who aren’t – which is not really sustainable (particularly during an economic crisis). For this reason, policymakers worldwide are accepting an inevitability: people will have to work longer.

Ah, but not in France. Not in the homeland of Lagrange, Fourier and Descartes, where mathematics nowadays apparently work differently. Or rather, the raising of pensionable age makes no sense at all, because sooner or later the government will have to reverse it, as will all governments. And, in the meantime, it makes the ticking time-bomb worse. It is a sweetie, handed out to make people feel better: Hollande will give you a sweetie today, but some future government will need to take it back tomorrow twofold.

What is most disappointing for the left about Hollande, then, is that he seems much less the avant-guardiste of a new paradigm for the left, than a throwback to old, ostrich-like ways of the 1970s. It fits, too, because France itself has traditionally been the last big country in the west to accept realities such as flexible labour markets and the death of trade protectionism, as global business moves east.

The danger for Hollande, in short, is that he could end up like Spain's “Crisis? What crisis?” Zapatero, someone many on the left also had high hopes for, and whose career ended in ignominy as he was ultimately forced to take back all the sweeties. Miliband was politically astute in taking advantage of the apparent lack of connection between Hollande and Cameron, and right in going to Paris to make common cause with practically the only socialist premier left. But that, perhaps, should be as far as it goes.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

French President François Hollande welcomes Labour leader Ed Miliband before a meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.