International

French companies, unions question Hollande’s new vision

French President Francois Hollande stands on the stairs of the entrance of the Elysee Palace in Paris after a meeting, January 15, 2014. (REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer)

PARIS: French business raised doubts Wednesday over Socialist President Francois Hollande’s plan for public spending cuts and structural reform to revive the eurozone’s second-largest economy.

His allies hailed a new “social democrat” vision for France, but unions said they were worried about job cuts to the army of state sector workers and far-left politicians accused him of a sell out as he moved toward the political center.

Hollande, who has not denied magazine allegations last week of an affair with actress, deflected questions on his personal life at a marathon news conference Tuesday, unveiling plans to find at least 50 billion euros of spending cuts between 2015-2017 and cut corporate charges by 30 billion euros.

The European Commission said the moves should make French business more competitive. While France’s main employers’ group broadly welcomed the plan, it rejected his call for companies to commit to specific targets for new hires.

“What exactly is the magnitude of the structural reforms he announced? We need to have a clarification,” said Medef president Pierre Gattaz, who has suggested the French private sector could create an extra 1 million jobs if freed from excessive charges.

Critics say French public spending at around 57 percent of national output – some 12 points more than in neighboring Germany – is too high while the national audit office has said that French debt at 93.4 percent of GDP is “in the danger zone.”

But Hollande’s plans prompted an onslaught of criticism from France’s hard left and even from the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who said he converted to “ultra-liberal” economics.

“It’s called social democracy ... and social democracy is on the left,” Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, a centrist leader in Hollande’s Socialist Party, told LCI television.

“What is being proposed is a social compromise ... it is an acceleration, an amplification of our line,” he replied when asked if Hollande – who in his 2012 campaign called the world of finance his “enemy” – had committed a U-turn.

Social democracy is the term used to describe the goal of creating welfare structures and social solidarity within a capitalist economy. In Europe, it is employed most notably in Germany in the name of the main party of the left.

But whereas Germany’s Social Democrats disavowed Marxism at a 1959 conference in the town of Bad Godesberg, France’s Socialists have never had such a moment and remain a broad grouping in which centrists rub shoulders with staunch left-wingers such as Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg.

A spokeswoman for the German Finance Ministry said the proposals were “important” and Berlin had “a great deal of respect for the efforts and reform measures that have been announced.”

For over two-and-a-half hours Tuesday, Hollande batted away questions about a celebrity magazine’s revelations of a liaison with a French film actress and the future of his relationship with official partner Valerie Trierweiler.

The set piece event was intended to expand on Hollande’s conviction that “supply-side socialism” is needed to reform the eurozone’s second-largest economy while preserving a generous welfare model cherished by most French.

“A U-turn of words,” the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper said in its Wednesday edition. “Hollande set free,” the left-wing Liberation daily said.

But while Hollande largely succeeded in ensuring domestic headlines focused on his economic plans rather than private life, the reaction among reform advocates proved to be more mitigated.

The planned cuts to spending amount to some 18 billion euros a year for 2015, 2016, and 2017 – little higher than an existing rhythm set to shave 15 billion euros this year.

Moreover, Hollande said the 30-billion-euro tax reduction to companies by alleviating them of the need to pay family benefit contributions by 2017 could be partly counterfinanced by rediverting 20 billion euros of existing tax credits.

“So the net win is only of the order of 10 billion euros whereas we were after 80,” Gattaz said.

Hollande’s suggestion that France could find savings by rationalizing its multilayered system of local government also raised concerns among trade unions over the fate of some 5.3 million “fonctionnaire” public sector workers.

Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the government would not repeat an attrition policy tried out by ex-leader Nicolas Sarkozy to replace only one out of two departing state sector workers.

However, the moderate CFDT union that has backed Hollande’s reforms up until now warned in a statement that it would watch closely any impact on staffing levels.

Independent economists welcomed Hollande’s recognition of the need to cut spending but questioned whether the volume of cuts would be delivered and sufficient to mark a change.

“2014 could be a window of opportunity for Hollande,” said Christian Schulz, senior economist at German bank Berenberg.

“Convincing the left wing of his party and the unions of the need for supply-side reforms should be easier in times of high unemployment and economic underperformance.”

Germany’s conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted that Hollande had “abandoned the balancing act” within his own party by coming out as a social democrat rather than a left-leaning socialist.

But it added: “In Europe, and especially in Berlin, people will be watching closely to see if he can stay the course with his shift.”

A spokeswoman for the German Finance Ministry said the proposals were “important” and that Germany had “a great deal of respect for the efforts and reform measures that have been announced.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2014, on page 6.

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