Expert View: God help France if it falls for the charms of Ms Royal

The man who did her calculations was so shocked he resigned
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The Independent Online

The French farce that is currently passing as the presidential election campaign across the Channel continues to throw off laughable gaffes, extraordinary revelations and some of the best examples of "double-think" in contemporary politics. And if the French electorate is enjoying this spectacle, they are mad. The laughs are all on them.

In many ways, it is hard to see France's decline. But lovers of la vie française (such as myself) need to stand back. In 1979, the British were 20 per cent poorer than the French, as measured by GDP per head. We are now 5 per cent richer, and the outlook is for that gap to widen further. The general economic background is a major part of this - the French economy has crawled along at a growth rate that has averaged half that of the UK's in recent years. Unemployment is stubbornly high, and even after a recent recovery, remains nearly twice the UK's.

All this despite the extraordinary act of generational theft that is being committed daily by the French pension system, which is funding current consumption by inadequately providing for the future. Not to mention incredibly high government spending - 43 per cent of GDP, while national debt is now equivalent to 70 per cent.

Income tax and national insurance, too, are frighteningly high. The average rate for individuals is some 45.3 per cent, compared with 41 per cent across the EU. The top marginal rate was, until recently, nearly 70 per cent, leading to the classic brain drain that Britain suffered in the 1970s. Johnny Hallyday was a recent high-profile departure for Switzerland, and over 300,000 have chosen exile in the UK alone. The rate of exodus appears to be accelerating. This in itself leads to ever-lower tax take for the Treasury.

This is the situation after years of right-wing leadership that has clearly failed to tackle the ensuing crisis. Time for "France's Blair"?

Ségolène Royal's famous "100 Point Plan" seems more like "100 Ways to Make Things Worse". Taxes? She'd raise them even higher, with more wealth tax (already levied on individuals' homes) and more income tax (everyone earning above £30,000 a year would be clobbered). She'd abolish the 60 per cent tax threshold ceiling recently introduced. (Trying to speed up emigration, Ségolène?) Oh, and she'd put a new tax on people living abroad. (Trying to get them to renounce French citizenship?)

Spending too high? She'd spend even more. Ségolène wants to give an interest-free loan to every 18-year-old, make unemployment benefits 90 per cent of the claimant's previous salary, raise pension payments by 5 per cent. All this amounts to a grand total of a 20 per cent increase in public spending that was considered so shocking the man who did the numbers for her resigned last week.

Businesses have a lot to fear. Ms Royal's overall attitude would seem to have a lot in common with a new boardgame popular in France called "anti-Monopoly", where contestants win by driving companies out of business.

Addressing shocked business leaders, Ms Royal stated that her "lifetime's enemy is money" and pledged a series of measures that would seem likely to kill foreign investment in France for ever. These include raising the minimum wage dramatically to €1,500 (£1,000) a month, renationalising Electricité de France and Gaz de France, penalising companies thought to be paying "too high" dividends, and forbidding any business to reduce staff headcount or move operations overseas while it is still in profit.

Ms Royal does want to reform the 35-hour week - you guessed it - to "reduce the negative effect on employees". What's she going to do - make it 30?

Optimists hope this leftist posturing is a clever attempt to consolidate support in the first round of the campaign, before moving to the centre later (à la Mitterrand). But overall, French citizens should be disheartened at the immature level of the left's campaign. And for investors in France, this campaign could prove a real casino Royal.

Christopher.walker@tiscali.co.uk

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