Hard-left Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, especially, has harnessed a festering resentment of the wealthy.
He appears unworried by comparisons to Maximilien de Robespierre (leader of The Terror in the French Revolution) and opinion polls suggest that a significant number of French people love it when he lets rip.
He did so at a rally in Rouen on 6 March when he yelled (though not, presumably at his audience of supporters): “You will pay for it, you rich ladies and gentlemen …. Your money which stinks, your disgusting manoeuvres!”
Socialist presidential frontrunner François Hollande’s famously declared on TV in 2007, “I do not like the rich”, and one of his most prominent manifesto pledges in this election is a 75 per cent tax rate on all those whose yearly income exceeds one million euros.
Sarkozy slammed the tax, asking who would fund France’s generous health and welfare systems if the rich leave, and declaring “M. Hollande wants fewer rich people, I want fewer poor people.”
He took the point further, praising French ingenuity and talent but suggesting that Hollande’s anti-rich stance would deter any budding French Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
But Sarkozy appears to be on the wrong side of French public opinion. This is the nation of liberté, égalité, fraternité, born of the French Revolution, whose instinct often seems to be to topple the rich, rather than elevate the poor.
Compared to many English-speaking countries, the political centre of gravity in France is well to the left. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was ridiculed in Paris when she said in an interview on British TV that her husband’s UMP movement, on the right of the French political spectrum, was “practically a left-wing party”, but she was quoted out of context and was comparing the party to the Republicans in the United States.
Unlike many right-wing parties around the world, French right-wing parties are not very economically liberal and have a strong state “dirigiste” tradition. Though they are more business-friendly than French left-wing parties, they know they will never win without some high-profile attacks on business fat-cats.
Against this background, and a general worldwide backlash against the super-rich, Sarkozy has added his voice to the campaign noise about money, shouting his disapproval of unbridled greed and those who avoid paying taxes.
He says he will stop wealthy French people living as tax exiles in Switzerland, Belgium and London, and if they don’t pay up they will lose their citizenship.
Mélenchon sets the threshold much lower, saying at a recent meeting “Let them all leave, the overpaid bosses, the moneymakers. Above 30,000 euros per month, we’ll take it all!”