REUTERS - The leading contenders for the Socialist party’s presidential candidacy pledged on Thursday to raise taxes on the rich and stick to international commitments to reduce France’s deficit if they win next year’s election.
A televised debate between the six hopefuls for the opposition Socialists’ primary next month was dominated by France’s stuttering economic recovery and high unemployment, with proposals ranging from tougher regulation of banks to youth employment schemes.
“I do not like outrageous wealth, I do not like indecent remunerations, I do not like selfishness,” said Francois Hollande, the poll favourite to win the party’s nod, pledging to increase taxes on the richest French to help fund proposals such as a rise in education spending.
“I will not be the president to grow our debt as Nicolas Sarkozy has done ... Nothing I am proposing would damage our public finances,” said Hollande, saying he would target a balanced budget by 2017.
With a poll on Wednesday showing that 56 percent of French voters would like to see the Socialists win April’s presidential election, the party’s economic policy could become a decisive element in Europe’s debt crisis next year.
Hollande held a commanding lead according to Wednesday’s IFOP survey, with 60 percent, well ahead of his main rival Martine Aubry with 35 percent.
With unemployment running at more than 9 percent and many households experiencing a fall in their purchasing power, the economy is expected to play a central role in next year’s vote.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government announced last month a package of austerity measures designed to ensure France’s meets an EU commitment to cut its deficit below 3 percent of economic output by 2013, from around 7 percent last year.
“We must respect our promises to cut the deficit below 3 percent by 2013...but we cannot just have the objective of reducing the deficit, because that would hit growth,” Aubry said, pledging to eliminate 50 billion euros a year in tax exemptions. “My priorities are employment, employment, employment.”
With polls showing most French want to exit nuclear power following the incident at Japan’s Fukushima reactor this year, most candidates pledged to scale back France’s reliance on the sector, which provides three-quarters of the country’s power.
Several candidates were also strongly critical of the financial sector’s role in triggering the financial crisis, and called for tougher rules on banks and bankers.
“We should make the rich obey the law like everyone else,” said Segolene Royal, who unsuccessfully ran against Sarkozy in 2007 as the Socialist party candidate. “As long as the banks command and we obey, then we will not emerge from the crisis.”
Royal, seen as unlikely to win the candidacy for a second time, pledged to ban banks from speculating on national debt and oblige them to lend a specific amount of their deposits to small businesses.