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Economy

Why is François Hollande so boring?

media Inspired? A Hollande election poster DR

He looks like an unassertive provincial schoolteacher, he’s been nicknamed “the marshmallow” and he claims to be Mr Ordinary. Yet he looks set to become France’s next president. Why is François Hollande – or at least his election campaign – so low key?

France’s 2012 presidential race has not seen political passions run high. A record number of voters are threatening to abstain and many frankly describe the campaign as “boring”.

With Europe in the depths of economic crisis, they feel that the leading candidates have failed to address their main concernsjobs, living standards and education.

And the man who’s leading in the polls could well be accused of running the blandest campaign. Not even his most ardent supporter would claim that Hollande has set the masses on fire – or even tried to.

Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy has lost his temper with journalists - and even one unfortunate farmer - banged the drum on immigration, Islam and crime, and summoned the “silent majority” to rally to his side.

The two possible runners-up – the far right’s Marine Le Pen and the hard left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon – have insulted each other and been less than complementary about the favourites.

But Hollande has plodded on, living up to his reputation as an affable man of consensus who never gets angry. Sometimes, when the mikes are off and he’s feeling really relaxed, he cracks a joke in front of a handful of journalists, but that’s about as unbuttoned as it gets.

And, although Sarkozy’s campaign team has tried desperately to portray Hollande as a baby-eater-in-waiting, his programme is less than radical.

With 10 per cent of the French workforce earning 1,124 euros a month or less, there was no proposal to raise the minimum wage in Hollande’s manifesto. He finally conceded that there should be an unspecified hike four days before the first round.

With indignation high at the role of banks and speculators in the economic crisis, Hollande has declared that finance is his enemy … except for when he goes to London and assures the City, “I am not dangerous”, an apparent sign of perfidy that was seized on by Sarkozy.

Hollande’s response to public anger at the enormous salaries of top bosses was to propose a 75 per cent tax on income above one million euros – perhaps his most radical proposal. At 46.7 per cent, France currently not only has a lower top tax rate than Sweden (56.6 per cent) but also than market-friendly Britain (50 per cent) and Sarkozy’s much-admired Germany (47.5 per cent).

But the Left Front’s Mélenchon has decisively trumped Hollande on wealth redistribution with a proposal to confiscate income over 30,000 euros a month.

After François Mitterrand’s historic victory in 1981 - so far the only time a Socialist has been directly elected French president - the minimum wage was raised 10 per cent, 36 banks were nationalised along with a number of large companies and the working week was shortened. Mitterrand’s government veered to the right after about two years but the most precious improvements in workers’ rights remained untouched.

Today there is nothing chez Hollande to get the sans-culottes sharpening their pitchforks or to get the young dancing in the streets as they did in ‘81.

Does he do it on purpose?

Maybe.

Ever since he won the Socialist candidacy, Hollande has been ahead in the polls, with Sarkozy the most unpopular president since polling began.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

So Hollande’s task was to keep it that way, leading to a campaign that has been, to put it mildly, risk-averse.

Like all Europe’s centre-left parties, the Socialists have moved to the right over the last 30 years, convinced by pundits and pollsters that they must pursue the “middle ground”, even if it meant taking their traditional voters for granted.

So no gaffes, no radicalism and no proposals that might hint that the middle class might have to pay more tax.

Hollande might also be anxious not to raise expectations. The only other left-wing electoral triumph was in 1936 which resulted in the Popular Front coalition of Radicals and Socialists, with Communist support.

That was followed by a wave of strikes and factory occupations that pushed the government to the left, and the introduction of paid holidays and a shorter working week, much to the disgust of most employers.

There aren’t many big factories left to occupy in France but the French haven’t lost their passion for strikes and demonstrations. Hollande and his comrades would probably like a few months grace before the crowds hit the streets and maybe keeping promises to a minimum is the best way to avoid accusations of treachery.

Lastly, there’s Europe and the world economy.

Hollande says he will renegotiate the eurozone anti-debt pact but he wants to maintain France’s partnership with Germany at the heart of the European Union and that means compromise with Angela Merkel’s conservative government, as well as abiding by the EU’s pro-market rules.

He promises to balance France’s budget by 2017. With debt at 90 per cent of GDP and public spending at 56 per cent, that will surely mean some pain.

Finally, a victorious Hollande would inherit the worldwide economic crisis that helped see off Sarkozy. With the International Monetary Fund telling both leading candidates that their predictions for French growth in 2013 are too optimistic, he might find himself scaling down his already modest ambitions.

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