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PORTSIDE  April 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE April 2012, Week 2

Subject:

Melenchon Could Change French Politics With Strong Showing

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Date:

Tue, 10 Apr 2012 16:13:52 -0400

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Melenchon Could Change French Politics With Strong
Showing

By Mark Weisbrot
Guardian (UK)
April 9, 2012

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/10/jean-luc-melenchon-france-elections

France's conservative President, Nicolas Sarkozy, ran
for office in 2007 on a program of making the French
economy more like that of the United States.  He picked
a bad time for that: the U.S. was on the brink of its
worst recession since the Great Depression, and would
help drag down Europe and much of the world economy as
the American economy collapsed.  He probably wouldn't
want to say these things today, after the U.S. has had
four years with hardly any economic growth at all.

But Sarkozy did succeed in making the French economy
more like the U.S. in some ways.  After being one of
the few high-income countries that didn't have an
increase in inequality from the mid-1980s to the
mid-2000s, France has become more unequal since Sarkozy
was elected.  For example, the ratio of the income of
people in the 99th percentile (near the top) to the
first percentile (at the bottom) went from 11.8 to
16.2.  Other measures of inequality also increased
significantly (the Gini coefficient rose from 26.6 to
29.9).  This happened from 2007 to 2010; it is probably
worse today.

By raising the retirement age - a wholly unnecessary
reform that drew enormous opposition and protests -
Sarkozy also helped to make France more unequal for the
future.

The comparison between France and the U.S. is a good
one, because the two countries have about the same
level of productivity, or output per hour.  This means
that they have the economic capacity to enjoy about the
same living standards.  The French have chosen to take
their productivity gains in the form of shorter work
hours, longer vacations, universal health care, free
college education and child care, and a more equal
distribution of income.  By contrast, in the United
States more than 60 percent of the income gains of the
past three decades have gone to the richest one
percent. Poverty is now back to the rates of the late
1960s; college tuition costs have soared; we have no
legally mandated paid holidays or vacations; and 52
million Americans remain without health insurance
(although this could be reduced in the coming years,
depending partly on the Supreme Court).

Most French citizens like their economic security and
shared prosperity. So it may seem odd that someone with
Sarkozy's program could have gotten elected in the
first place, and have a chance to win re-election. But
this is largely due to popular misunderstanding of the
most important economic issues, aided and abetted by
flawed media coverage.

As in 2007, the conventional wisdom is that France is
living beyond its means, and Sarkozy now warns that
France could be the next Greece and face economic
meltdown if he is not re-elected.  He pledges to
balance France's national budget by 2016.

Unfortunately, his Socialist Party rival, Fran├žois
Hollande, pledges to balance the budget by 2017. Of
course there are some important differences between the
two, but if either candidate were to implement a fiscal
austerity program of this magnitude while the French
and European economies are this weak, it is almost
certain that unemployment and other economic and social
problems will worsen. And France will lose some its
important economic and social achievements.

Fortunately France has a more progressive alternative:
Jean-Luc Melenchon, backed by the Left Front.  He seems
to be the only one in the race that understands the
real economic choices faced by France and the eurozone.
France does not need austerity - that would be its best
chance of actually ending up like Greece.  Melenchon
proposes instead that the European Central Bank (ECB)
do its job and make loans to France and other European
governments at one percent, as it does for the banks.
France's interest burden on its debt is already quite
reasonable, at about 2.4 percent of GDP; so if it can
keep borrowing costs low it can grow its way out of its
current problems, creating employment and increasing
incomes in the process.  That is sensible macroeconomic
policy.

Melenchon also wants to reduce work hours and raise the
minimum wage, and increase taxes on the rich. He
rejects the balanced-budget nonsense - as even most
economists in the U.S. do - and also the ECB's lack of
commitment to full employment.  This also makes
economic sense, especially in a time of recession when
the ECB can create money (as the U.S. Federal Reserve
has created $2.3 trillion since 2008) without fear of
excess inflation.

In the French elections, the top two finishers go to a
second round if, as appears likely, neither gets a
majority in the first round on April 22.  Melenchon is
currently polling at about 15 percent of the vote, but
this would probably be even higher if not for the fear
that he could push the Socialist Party out of the
second round of the election.  That happened in 2002,
when the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate took
second place.  But there is no significant chance of a
repeat this year; Marine Le Pen is polling at just 13
percent.  So it would seem that anyone who wants to
preserve French living standards and way of life should
cast their vote for Melenchon.

As compared with the U.S., it is much easier for a
third party candidate in France to have a significant
influence even without winning.  Hollande has already
moved left to capture the Left Front's voters, and
Melenchon will have the bargaining chip of his
endorsement for the second round. With the two big
parties committed to economic policies that will lower
French living standards for the majority - in 2007 it
was just Sarkozy who made this commitment - it's hard
to think of a more appropriate time to vote "outside
the box."

___________________________________________

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