There was a clue that something was up aboard the 20:01 Eurostar from London to Paris in the small earpieces worn by suited men lurking between carriages while we took our seats. Later, in the bar, which is normally quiet, around 20 people formed a huddle not by the refreshments but around a man holding court and cracking jokes. A closer look showed him to be the likely next president of France come the elections in May, François Hollande.
The huddle consisted of a mildly chaotic briefing with the travelling French media in the buffet car. But Hollande had declined interview requests with British newspapers during his day-trip to London on 29th February, where he met Ed Miliband but not David Cameron or Nick Clegg.
But after a brief negotiation via one of his security guards, the Socialist leader agreed to sit down exclusively with Prospect in his standard-class carriage. Asked if the left in Europe needs to do more to win the fiscal argument in the wake of the “crisis of capitalism,” Hollande said, “I hope to create a new capitalism. If I obtain victory in May, it will be a chance for the left in Europe, not to impose a model, but, it is true, that what we want to do is regulate and control finance,” he continued, pitching a leftist message of the sort the Labour leadership in Britain avoids. “I want to see a new left and a new way,” he said.
Speaking 24 hours after proposing a “millionaire’s tax” of 75 per cent on income over €1m, Hollande has reason to believe his leftist-populism is working. A poll in early March by the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (Ifop) gave him a 3.5 per cent lead over Sarkozy, with a projection for the first ballot on 22nd April showing Hollande on 29 points and Sarkozy on 25.5. Support for Hollande in the 6th May run-off is at 56.6 per cent to Sarkozy’s 43.5 per cent (although, an Ifop poll on 13th March would have encouraged Sarkozy, as it put him ahead by 28.5 per cent to Hollande’s 27). Remarkably, according to an Ipsos-Logica poll in early March, 49 per cent of the French trust Hollande with cutting the deficit compared with 48 per cent who trust Sarkozy. The incumbent is more trusted to “confront the financial crisis,” by 52-45 per cent, but Hollande inspires more faith when it comes to reducing unemployment, by 60 over 37 per cent.
Sarkozy, president since 2007 and leader of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire party, is on the back foot. On 2nd March, he had to cower in a bar while campaigning in the southwestern French town of Bayonne, where protesters were shouting that he was the “millionaire’s president.” A flustered Sarkozy called the protesters a “violent minority” and, likening them to a “terrorist movement,” he accused the Socialist party of co-ordinating the incident.
On 4th March, the German weekly Der Spiegel claimed that four centre-right leaders in Europe have agreed to snub Hollande in the run-up to the election: David Cameron, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor (who has openly backed Sarkozy), Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister and Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister.
Miliband, however, told Prospect that it was a “pleasure” to meet Hollande, “and to have a wide-ranging discussion about the challenges we face in common, and the values and policies we need to respond to those challenges.” The Labour leader conceded that “we have differences as well as similarities in our views,” but added that, “what we share is a commitment to challenge the conservative consensus of austerity in Europe.” An official in the talks between the two leaders said that top of the agenda was “the political situations we face as centre-left leaders in an era of economic crisis and challenging centre-right incumbents.”
Prospect has also learned that Miliband and Hollande discussed three other areas. On the economic crisis facing Europe, both men reaffirmed their commitment to “fiscal responsibility” and ensuring deficits and debt are brought down over the medium term. But they also expressed mutual concern over the “crisis of jobs” that is hitting ordinary people in France and Britain who did not cause the financial crisis. Both politicians complained that the economic consensus shared by governments across Europe lacks a co-ordinated effort to boost growth. They concluded that their biggest challenge was to “move beyond a Europe of austerity.”
Next, they agreed on the need to help young people and a “lost generation” of unemployed: in France one in four of those aged 16-24 are without work; in Britain, one in five are out of a job. They found common ground in their rhetoric; Hollande’s “contract between generations” and Miliband’s “promise of Britain.”
Finally, the leaders touched on foreign affairs, agreeing a tough line both on the oppressive Syrian regime and the Iranian refusal to heed international warnings over the development of its nuclear programme.
Despite signs of an election make-over, Hollande lacks the glamour and charisma of his predecessor as socialist leader, Ségolène Royal, who is also Hollande’s former partner—the couple had four children. He is a party establishment man who looks like a technocrat, not immediately distinguishable from his security men. A few passengers wanted photos with him; others didn’t care about his presence. One frustrated French woman, unable to get to the bar because of his entourage, said: “Hollande is here—so what?”
Yet his time may have come in France, where his election posters declare “the time for change is now.” Hollande told Prospect: “I want to say to all the parties of the centre left, this is my proposal—a new generation and a new capitalism.”