Bad news for Hollande as austerity bites

Hollande's focus on cutting deficits with revenues hasn't saved him from the downsides.

The French economy is on the rocks, in a move which threatens to derail president Hollande's economic reforms. The Observer's Kim Willsher reports:

The French leader has been hit by soaring unemployment figures, further factory closures and job losses, and plummeting popularity on top of growing fears that he and his Socialist government are failing to address the country's problems. Members of the opposition right-of-centre UMP have accused them of being "amateurs".

The news is bad, both for Hollande, and for proponents of revenue-side austerity. It is probably too soon to write-off the effects of the controversial 70 per cent tax rate – the pernicious effects of which are supposedly flight of high-net-worth individuals, rather than just a retardation of growth per se – but at the same time, it is clear that Hollande's agenda is, at best, no better than Sarkozy's was.

Despite the unpopularity of those revenue-raising measures amongst the economic elite, a meeting with members of various international organisations today – including the IMF and OECD – will reportedly focus on supply-side reforms "to improve France's competitiveness on the world market and restore confidence at home and abroad". The French labour market, with its ring-fenced working hours, worker protections, and strong unions, is frequently seen as being counter-productive to economic health.

The other major reason why the OECD and IMF are unlikely to press too hard on the question of high marginal tax rates is that, despite the fact that it has led to Hollande's government being seen as a standard-bearer for the left, they still fit very strongly into the narrative of "austerity".

The socialist government has made much the same pledges to be "realistic about the deficit" and practice "fiscal restraint" as we are used to hearing from all the parties in the UK. Where it has differed is in the method by which it has tried to reduce the deficit, focusing on increasing revenue rather than decreasing spending.

While this has driven some economists, like GWU's Veronique de Rugy, mad, it is a perfectly fair application of the principles behind austerity. What it also does, though, is expose the contradictions between those who genuinely desire to reduce deficits, pay down debt and "win the confidence of bond markets", and those who have used those as a convenient excuse to argue for shrinking the state.

Whether-or-not revenue-based austerity is as effective as spending-based austerity, however, it is clear that both are austerity. To those who have argued that, in a recession characterised by depressed consumer confidence and low aggregate demand, the state needs to temporarily push for deficit-funded spending, the bad economic news for France is yet more evidence in favour.

François Hollande. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.