French election: Five things that you’d never hear in the U.S.

at 10:53 AM ET, 04/23/2012

It’s no secret that France is further to the left than the United States. But listening to some of the rhetoric from the French presidential election can underscore how vast the gulf really is. Here are five things that it’s hard to imagine a major-party American candidate saying:


He’d never make it in U.S. politics. (Michel Spingler - Associated Press)
1) Unadulterated bashing of the financial industry. Here was Francois Hollande, the Socialist presidential front-runner in France, back in January: “Let me tell you who my rival is. It does not bear a name or have a face, it’s the finance industry. In the past twenty years, the financial industry has taken control of our societies, of our lives and threatens our states.” In London the following month, this was Hollande’s way of dialing back his speech in a talk with investors: “I am not dangerous… [still], there must be regulation everywhere.”

And Jean Luc Melenchon, a one-time Trotskyist who was running to Hollande’s left, didn’t even make that minor concession. “I’m dangerous!,” he proudly told the Guardian. “Dangerous for financial interests, and dangerous for the oligarchy in France and Europe.”

Compare this to the uproar in the United States over Barack Obama’s much milder statement to “60 Minutes” in 2009: “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat-cat bankers on Wall Street.” As Alec McGillis has reported, plenty of hedge-fund backers turned on Obama over that comment, and the White House has been doing damage control for years.

2) Very high taxes on the wealthy. Hollande has proposed subjecting all income above $1.34 million to a 75 percent tax. Melenchon, for his part, had been demanding a 100 percent tax on any income over $500,000 per year. That meant incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy could stake out ground as the tax conservative in the race: Having already enacted a comparatively meager 4 percent surcharge on high incomes, he was content to propose a value-added tax and an “exit tax” on French citizens who moved abroad. Melanchon, for his part, wasn’t so worried about rich French people fleeing the country: “If they do, no problem. Bye bye.”

Here in the United States, meanwhile, there's a fierce debate over whether the top rate should stay at 35 percent or rise to 39.6 percent.

3) Competition over who can pass stricter financial regulation. Sarkozy set the standard for France’s approach to bank regulation by passing a 0.1 percent tax on all financial transactions within the country. (His efforts to push this tax around the world has been opposed by, among others, the Obama administration.) Hollande, meanwhile, wants to go even further, separating retail and investment banking, banning “toxic” financial products, and preventing French banks from operating in tax havens.

4) Policies to limit CEO pay. Hollande wants to limit the pay of CEOs at state-owned companies to 20 times the lowest worker wage. That’s no small thing: Even after decades of privatization, state-owned company holdings still account for about 5 percent of GDP in France, a category that includes railway operators, various airports, and the nuclear-power industry. (Melanchon, by the way, wants to try to reverse this privatization trend and nationalize France’s biggest energy companies.)

5) Even the far right is against free enterprise. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front who got 20 percent of the vote on Sunday, largely appealed to voters by stirring up fears of foreigners taking French jobs, terrorism and euro-bashing. But even Le Pen had run against big business and the financial industry: “We have blown apart the monopoly of the two parties of banking, finance and multinationals,” she proudly declared after her unexpectedly strong performance on Sunday. Here in the United States, Mario Loyola of the National Review was depressed by Le Pen’s “protectionist” stance.

Related: Why you should care about the French election. Note that Arthur Goldhammer makes the case here that Hollande isn’t quite as radical as his fiery campaign speeches might suggest.

 
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