Europe

Crisis tests French Socialist faith in spending

Sandrine Bauter, unemployed carer, Paris
Image caption Unemployed carer Sandrine Bauter is among those receiving food aid

As the Socialist Party of France heads into its first ever "open" primary, it is no surprise that the dominant theme is the economy - and namely the deficit and the challenge of returning the country to growth.

In a poorer suburb of Paris, a queue forms outside a community centre. The people have brought empty shopping trolleys. They have been here since early morning waiting for hand-outs.

Clutched in their hands are the bright orange tickets, makeshift coupons, that will entitle them to free flour, sugar, milk and other basic provisions.

It has been a summer of miserable economic news in France - unemployment is rising in line with household debt.

Last year the charity Secours Populaire gave food support to 2.4 million people in France. This year, says organiser Pascal Rodier, they have fed the same number in the first nine months to September.

"The economic crisis is touching more and more people and that includes the middle classes," he says.

"In years gone by a job would protect people from poverty. Not any more - the rising cost of food, electricity, housing means there are people dropping into a poverty gap who you might not expect to see there."

Sandrine Bauter, an unemployed carer, is one of them. Her partner brings home the minimum wage of 1,300 euros (£1,130) but they have two children, including a disabled eight-year-old, and it is getting harder.

"When we get to the 20th, we are already running out of money," she says.

"I could only afford to come here today because my father-in-law has lent me the money."

Funding the pledges

The current frontrunner for the Socialist ticket, by a large margin, is Francois Hollande, the former partner of losing 2007 presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

"Who is going to pay for the economic crisis?" asked Pierre Moscovici, Mr Hollande's campaign manager.

"That is the question for the electorate. For Mr Sarkozy and the right it is the popular classes, the middle classes who will pay.

"The more fortunate members of our society, the upper class, they are spared. Probably with us it will be the reverse."

Image caption From left: Jean-Michel Baylet, Martine Aubry, Manuel Valls, Francois Hollande, Arnaud Montebourg and Segolene Royal

There is, though, a dilemma for the Socialist camp. With national debt at 80% of GDP, and markets demanding a cut in the deficit, how do they appeal to their voters without pledging money that would put the economy at future risk?

In the televised debates this month, the leading Socialist candidates have pledged to hold the line on deficit reduction, but Mr Hollande believes the best way to do that is to promote growth.

"First there needs to be fiscal reform," he said.

"It can't be a system that steals, or punishes, or forbids - on the contrary, we need transparency, a simpler, more progressive tax system that we can use to help people back to work."

Mr Hollande - now some 10 points ahead of his nearest rival Martine Aubry - puts the emphasis on education and policies to improve the job prospects of the young.

"I don't like insolent riches," he says.

"I don't like indecent remuneration. I don't like selfishness from a percentage of the population that considers its personal fate more important than any other consideration."

Deficit 'trap'

But his policies have been ridiculed by President Nicolas Sarkozy's supporters. Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the governing UMP, told me the Socialist Party would spend money that does not exist, endangering the country's precious AAA rating.

"Mr Hollande proposes to employ 70,000 new teachers," said Mr Cope.

"It's crazy! Crazy! And this is why it is difficult to have sensible discussions with the Socialists on these important questions."

One of Mr Sarkozy's election ideas is the "golden rule", a constitutional change that would force future French governments to balance the budget.

It has been described as a trap for French Socialists, who have refused to vote for it because it will confine future spending decisions.

"We must have 66% of the parliamentary vote to get these changes through - not a simple majority of 51% - which is why we need the Socialists on side," Mr Cope says.

"I personally think it would be much better to call the vote now and show to the French people that the Socialists are completely irresponsible."

On paper the Socialist candidate chosen this month should sweep to victory - against one of the more unpopular presidents of the Fifth Republic.

But for the moment, the Socialist plan appears to rely on heroic faith in a return to growth. None of the party's six candidates, perhaps with the exception of one, have dared to talk of a spending squeeze.

With six months to go to the election, the winning Socialist candidate still has a lot of work to do to convince the French electorate that their party has a coherent economic plan.

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