François Hollande has achieved far more than his critics suggest

The French president has shown that deficit reduction need not depend on deep cuts and regressive tax rises. Miliband should take note.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it coming. With next Monday marking one year since François Hollande was elected French President, a tidal wave of I told-you-so’s and smugness is about to be visited upon us by Westminster’s commentariat.

It’s fair to say that most of them have never much liked the French president. And we are sure to be gleefully informed that the first year of his Presidency has been a disaster. It will invariably be held up as a stark warning to Labour against carrying any challenge to the austerity consensus into the next election.

It won’t surprise you to learn that upon closer inspection, things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that.

Hollande has certainly had a difficult time of it, sliding recently to 25 per cent approval in the polls. Much of this can be laid at the door of his one unambiguous failure – his inability to overcome German opposition to redrawing the EU’s fiscal pact towards a greater focus on growth. As a result, unemployment is stuck at around 10%, and consumer confidence is low. The Eurozone remains largely frozen.

Some of it is also his own personal style. Hollande’s more low key, unfashioned image and patient approach – once a selling point – has bored a nation who became used to the glitz and hyperactivity of the Sarkozy years (in much the same way that ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ rebounded on Brown).

But if he has failed to offer much hope at a European level, the same cannot be said about his record at home. For starters, he has already made good on most of his key campaign promises, such as the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, raising the minimum wage and setting up a Public Investment Bank to lend where banks won’t (which given time could prove crucial to the country’s recovery).

But it is on budgetary matters – tax and spend – where Hollande has offered something most markedly different. Contrary to received wisdom in parts of the British press, the French President never campaigned against the principle of deficit reduction; simply against the notion that this is best achieved through deep spending cuts and huge tax hikes on ordinary people (this is after all what austerity has come to mean). And it is here that his actions in government bear far greater scrutiny than the widely held, lazy caricature that he has bowed to 'inevitable' cuts.

In 2013, only a third of Hollande’s deficit reduction measures comes from reducing spending. And all of this is coming from departmental spending freezes, not deep cuts.

The rest comes from increased taxes, largely on big businesses, banks and wealthy individuals. This includes increased wealth taxes, alongside hikes on taxes on assets and dividends. A new 45 per cent top rate has been brought in for incomes over €150,000, while companies will have to pay 75 per cent tax on any salaries over €1 million (replacing the 75 per cent income tax rate struck down by France’s constitutional court). Big banks and oil companies have also been hit with special levies. Tax exemptions have been scrapped.

While weak growth across Europe has made things harder than expected, these measures will still see France’s deficit fall to 3.7 per cent in 2013, from 4.8 per cent in 2012. Hollande has also shown admirable flexibility, resisting pressure to bring in any further deficit reduction measures to meet draconian EU targets while the economy is still weak (he has instead delayed them).

The ratio between taxes and spending reductions will level up a little in 2014, and some entitlements may be means tested. But freezes are likely to continue to take precedence to significant cuts on the spending side.

Whatever one’s view of Hollande, to equate this with the medicine meted out by other Governments in Europe is fatuous. Compare it, for instance, to George Osborne’s approach, whose ratio of cuts to taxes is 80:20, with that 20 per cent borne by people on average incomes while millionaires pay less. It’s also a world away from the broad-based slash and burn policies being implemented in Italy or Greece. Low and middle income households in France have been protected, as have public services.

Here Labour can still draw positive lessons, as beyond the need for short-term stimulus now, they face up to longer-term decisions over whether to accept the enormous cuts currently pencilled in by the Tories for 2015 and beyond. The deficit faced by any incoming Labour government is likely to be of a similar order to that faced by the French President.

Drawing inspiration from Hollande, but outside the fiscal straight jack imposed on Eurozone countries, Labour could set a longer more flexible timetable for elimination of the deficit. Assuming they inherit low growth, they could then pledge a freeze on overall departmental spending. This would be tough but would cancel planned Tory cuts and shut down accusations of profligacy or ‘turning the taps back on’ in a relatively painless way, providing them space to talk more about growth and living standards. Beyond that, levies on the well off and big businesses (e.g Financial Transactions Tax, Land Value Tax, restoring the main rate of corporation tax etc) should go towards paying for the rest of deficit reduction.

Within this overall spending envelope, further tax rises on the top (a 50p rate, mansion tax etc) could pay for tax cuts for those on low and middle incomes, aiding demand. Growth measures requiring capital spend would then be funded by taking money from budgets with the least impact on domestic demand (cuts in defence and international development to pay for a large house building programme, for instance).

There are many areas, of course, where Miliband will want and need to do the exact opposite of Hollande. He will have to be careful to not be seen to over-promise, given the public’s already brittle faith in politics. But a closer reading of François Hollande than we will be afforded in our newspapers reveals an important truth; one that can be rescued from the carnage of an otherwise difficult first year for the Socialist President. When it comes to how, when and on whose backs the national books are balanced, there are still choices.

This piece originally appeared on Shifting Grounds

François Hollande speaks during the annual May Day ceremony at the Elysée presidential palace in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear