France says oui to change, non to austerity

Hollande's victory will change the EU agenda.

Hollande's victory will change the EU agenda.

THE French election result, although hardly surprising, came down in the end to a choice between personalities as well as policies: between the mercurial incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his measured challenger, Francois Hollande. The French - as ever, stingingly precise with their nicknames - respectively called them ''l'agite''' and ''le placide''. On Sunday, the agitated one on the right was edged out by the placid one (also called ''Mr Normal'') on the left. Thus has Mr Sarkozy fulfilled the destiny he dreaded, becoming France's first one-term president since the defeat of Valery Giscard D'Estaing by Francois Mitterrand 31 years ago at the same time, Mr Hollande has risen to his more distinguished destiny, becoming France's first Socialist president for 24 years.

Mr Hollande's narrow winning margin (51.6 per cent to 48.4 per cent, with almost all the vote counted) was not as high as the 53 per cent achieved by Mr Sarkozy in 2007. It could have been worse, especially if the far right's Marine Le Pen, who won 18.1 per cent of the first-round vote two weeks ago, had thrown her support behind Mr Sarkozy, who was only too pleased to play the ''too many immigrants'' card - but to no avail. There was more on the minds of the France's 46 million registered voters, 80 per cent of whom turned out to register the desire for change, and, in particular, opposition to the economic austerity measures that have engulfed the eurozone and threaten France with a sovereign debt crisis.

Five years ago, it was different. Mr Sarkozy won the vote - beating Mr Hollande's former partner, Segolene Royal - on a platform of strong social and economic change. His favourite line at the time was ''une rupture'': making a break with the past. Unfortunately, with the advent of the global financial crisis and, in particular, the calamitous debt problems of EU members Greece and Italy, any ruptures have turned out to be politically fatal.

Mr Sarkozy is the 11th European leader to fall since 2008, and the inconclusive result of Greece's elections (also on Sunday), a further indication of disenchantment with austerity measures, could add to the headcount. The country's two main parties, which have dominated politics for almost four decades, have managed to garner just a third of the vote between them in addition, in an ominous Le Pen similarity, the far-right Golden Dawn party has won 7 per cent of the vote.

The shivers of apprehension have also caused ripples at the Reichstag. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now the surviving half of the ''Merkozy'' alliance, should prepare herself for more inevitable popular backlash against austerity politics. In regional elections in Schleswig-Holstein on Sunday, the Chancellor's Christian Democratic Union had its worst result in almost 50 years.

For France's president-elect - while allowing him to savour his moment of victory in the Place de la Bastille - there will be no time to waste after his inauguration next week. An immediate priority is to forge a new relationship with Dr Merkel - to work out how best to prove his statement that ''at last, austerity is no longer inevitable'' while reaching a suitable economic compromise. Domestically, Mr Hollande has to name a prime minister and face next month's French parliamentary elections. His hectic foreign schedule includes an imminent G8 meeting and NATO summit in the United States.

Perhaps the biggest gamble for Mr Hollande will be in fulfilling his pledge to reduce France's budget deficit to zero by 2017. To do this, he has said he will raise tax rates for large corporations and increase the rate for those earning more than ?1 million ($A128 million) to 75 per cent. For his first term, Monsieur le President has his work cut out for him.

Somare serves PNG best by retiringMICHAEL Somare's apparent retirement is welcome news for Papua New Guinea. Sir Michael has for years indicated his intention to retire, only to find it too hard to give up office and the power and wealth that goes with it. The nation is alarmingly corrupt, chaotic and undeveloped 37 years after he led Papua New Guinea to independence in the first of three spells as prime minister. If this is the end of the Somare story, the final chapters have seen the ''father of the nation'' become a dishonoured and divisive force, whose followers even attempted a coup in January after Parliament voted to confirm the incumbent, Peter O'Neill. The latter is not a shining knight, either, but Sir Michael's withdrawal from the political contest raises hopes of stability.

Sir Michael himself hoped elections in July would begin a new era. ''We have seen over the past nine months what we do not want to happen in PNG,'' he said, oblivious to the irony as he ignored his own role while condemning the O'Neill government. It is troubling that government legislation threatens the independence of a judiciary that ruled against Mr O'Neill in his stand-off with Sir Michael over who was the nation's legitimate leader. However, Parliament is where government is formed and the Governor-General accepted Mr O'Neill had Parliament's support, giving him democratic legitimacy. Mr O'Neill has also thought better of plans to delay the election, which means the people will soon have their say on who should govern them. That is as it should be.

Sir Michael may have been PNG's longest-serving prime minister, but the bid to bypass Parliament and politicise the military in order to seize back power showed him to be unfit for office. This was not the only stain on his record. Long before Sir Michael returned as prime minister in 2002, concerns about cronyism and other abuses of office abounded. Back in 1989, a report by Justice Thomas Barnett linked the Somare family to corruption in the logging industry.

Even if he was not guilty of self-enrichment, Sir Michael failed miserably to improve the lot of his people. PNG is corrupt, violent and unstable, as competing factions and tribes squabble over the spoils of meagre development. The opening of liquid natural gas projects in the next few years is as much a source of potential conflict as a desperately needed boost to national income. The elections and Sir Michael's departure may pave the way to better governance. An essential starting point is to end the cronyism, abuses of power and vainglorious Big Man politics that Sir Michael came to embody.

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