What Hollande Means for Britain

This article appeared in the Guardian.
François Hollande as French president could suit Britain

29 February 2012

François Hollande comes to London today to energise the 100,000 plus French voters who prefer British capitalism to French statism and whose votes may prove decisive in what is expected to be a narrow outcome in the French presidential election in May.
I was in the Place de la Bastille in May 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected. It was seen as a major win for the European left reeling from the impact of the Reagan-Thatcher worldview of liberal market economics, anti-Sovietism and a deep distrust of the state, which had been running affairs since the war.
Alas, poor Labour. Mitterrand's victory ushered in a further three Conservative wins and an even longer period of power for the German centre-right. The rampantly eurosceptic Labour party had no idea of how to relate to Mitterrand's European project and spent its wilderness decade tilting at European or market windmills instead of supporting the aspirations of middle England.
Ed Miliband is a child of that era and will avoid the mistakes that kept Labour in opposition. He will lunch with Hollande today, mediated by an interpreter as none of the occupants or contenders for top power in Britain or France speak each other's language.
But the bigger question is whether it is in Britain's interests to see a further five years for President Nicolas Sarkozy or whether, as in 1981, the election of a socialist French president may make greater strategic sense for the UK. David Cameron has come out as a full-hearted supporter for Sarkozy's re-election. But the last presidential candidate the prime minister endorsed was Poland's nationalist, clericalist politician, Lech Kaczynski, who failed miserably in his efforts to succeed his brother, killed in a plane crash near Katyn.
Mitterrand supported Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands at a time when Washington was temporising and seeking to broker a deal with the antisemitic, thuggish junta in Argentina. He worked with her on the Single European Act and produced the immortal description that the British prime minister had "the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula".
Hollande has been criticised in the City for saying "the financial world is my enemy". Yet it is Cameron who has denied bankers their bonuses, clawed back tax from Barclays, and stripped Fred Goodwin of his knighthood in the manner of the poor Captain Dreyfus having his epaulettes ripped off when the French establishment wanted to make an example of someone they felt had let the show down. Hollande is proposing a 45% tax rate on those earning €150,000. This is lower than the 50% rate George Osborne applies on similar incomes.
More important, Hollande is not Merkozy. The fusion of Berlin and Paris into a Euro juggernaut of austerity, anti-growth, job-killing 1930s-style economics should worry even the biggest debt and deficit hawks in the government. Angela Merkel is clearly in the EU's driving seat with Sarkozy fiddling with the satnav. The famous quip that the choice is always between a European Germany or a Germanised Europe has never been more appropriate. The French economy and public finances are now weaker than Britain in May 2010. As president, Hollande would not cure that but he would change the direction of travel for Europe, and Britain will not face a monolithic German-France project. As in 1981, a socialist president of France may be good for Britain. Whether he would be good for Labour is another matter.