France has a long history of exceptionalism. But the manner by which the campaign against the earnings of the rich has been conducted in the current French presidential campaign embellishes the image of uniqueness. In most countries, the backlash against extreme inequality has come from the bottom up, as projected most intensely in the Occupy Movement.
In France, however, the mantra of "soak the rich" has been taken up by the key contenders in the run-up to the first round of the presidential election on April 22. The mercurial incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy -- notwithstanding his proclivity for the company of the ultra-wealthy and the famous -- has already announced at the end of January his support for the unilateral imposition of a 0.1 per cent financial transaction tax. And François Fillon, Sarkozy's prime minister, unveiled immediately after the Cannes G20 in November 2011 a new set of surcharges on higher earners intended to balance the impact of austerity measures on the wider population.
At first glance it might not be surprising therefore that Sarkozy's main rival is trying to out-do him by proposing to implement a 75 per cent marginal tax on incomes above one million euros. After all, François Hollande is the candidate from the Socialist party, the traditional left-wing challenger to Sarkozy's conservative UMP party.
Yet on closer scrutiny the approach by Hollande is a surprise. After all, Hollande possesses a reputation of being a pragmatic centre-left, not an ideological hard-left, politician. In terms of personality, his image has been of a low-key even boring individual. As he told the financial community in London, including a multitude of French expatriates, in a reassuring tone last week: "I am not dangerous." Even his former partner, Ségolène Royal, the 2007 presidential candidate for the socialists (arguably another palpable sign of French exceptionalism), pointed to his blandness, asking during the internal socialist competition to pick a candidate: ""Can you think of a single thing that François Hollande has achieved in 30 years in politics?"
If decidedly a shift from his initial platform, Hollande had some powerful incentives to adopt a "soak the rich" approach. It allows Hollande to look tougher and thus contradict his image of being a light-weight, second-tier candidate. It also aims to highlight Sarkozy's own contradiction between his public approach on taxation and the "bling bling" style of his own persona. Certainly the "soak the rich" approach allows Hollande to go on the offensive in the mano-a-mano contest, with a condemnation of Sarkozy being a "president of the rich" with an "awful legacy."
Whatever the motivations, the impact of the approach is already clear in the polling results. One recent survey has indicated that Hollande's proposal for the 75 per cent tax on the income of the rich has the approval of 61 per cent of voters, boosting predictions that Hollande will not only win the April 22 first round contest but be the ultimate victor in the May second-round run-off.
Whatever the practical implications -- and these could be enormous with the election of a president from a socialist party at odds with the wider conservative dominance in Western Europe -- the symbolic consequences of such a result will be to consolidate the image of French exceptionalism.
(This article first appeared in Andrew Cooper's CIGI Blog Worlds of Global Governance.)