Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, frontrunner in the French presidential election, was trying to score some cheap points against President Nicolas Sarkozy—who’d been criticized for his cozy relationship with the rich. “I don’t like the rich,” he said—and followed up on February 27 on TF1, a French TV network, when he trotted out some ideas, such as the perennial favorite of capping gasoline prices that have setting one record after another. But most intriguingly, he offered his raptly listening compatriots two new income-tax brackets: 45% on income over €150,000 ($195,000) and 75% on income over €1,000,000.
“The considerable increases in remuneration of the bosses of the CAC 40—” he said about the CEOs of the largest publicly traded companies in France “—two million euros per year on average, how can we accept that?” And he went on very sensibly: “What I appreciate is talent, work, and merit, as those enable France to move forward,” he said. “What I do not accept are indecent wealth and remuneration….”
Published figures on how many taxpayers would be impacted are not available. Estimates are in the 15,000 to 20,000 range, perhaps up to €250 million in additional tax revenues. Even if small, it’s “a message of social cohesion,” he said, and not just that, but it’s also a sign of “patriotism to accept to pay additional taxes to put the country back on its feet.”
France does need to get back on its feet. Unemployment is rising. New vehicle sales are plunging, and French automakers—members of the CAC40—are threatening with layoffs, the bane of any socialist. And it’s just the beginning.
The “Hollande Tax,” as it was lovingly dubbed, was aimed at corporate compensation schemes. While CEOs broke into a cold sweat as they pressed their iPhones to their ears to better hear the whispered strategies of their offshore bankers, a hullabaloo broke out in a totally unexpected area: le foot … soccer, France’s national sport.
“Our best players, who are in a global market, will leave,” lamented Frédéric Thiriez, president of the Professional Football League. Players chimed in. Christophe Jallet, defender at the Paris Saint-Germain, one of the most prestigious soccer clubs in France called it “working for nothing.” Sports Minister David Douillet said that the measure would destroy professional soccer in France, that the industry would lose money, and that €600 million in tax revenues derived from it would disappear. Hundreds of millions more would be lost from publicly financed stadiums that would no longer attract large crowds. The top players would continue to earn many millions per year, but somewhere else. And French soccer clubs would die.
It hit home. Soccer is the sport of the people. Even the poor and the perennial underclass of North African descent and the otherwise discriminated-against proletariat, and even François Hollande himself, they all love soccer, and they all want France to win the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. But France won’t even be able to qualify without professional players.
Wednesday morning, a little over a week after he’d trotted out his proposal, Hollande began to backpedal. On Europe 1, France’s largest radio network, Hollande said defensively, “We must find smoothing mechanisms for the income tax,” so that peaks, such as lump-sum payments, can be spread out over time and don’t fall into that bracket.
Also on Wednesday, former Prime Minister and fellow socialist Laurent Fabius came out to defend Hollande and at the same time whittle away at the Hollande Tax. “We are in an exceptional period, and it’s legitimate that those who are lucky enough to earn a lot of money pay an exceptional tax,” he said on RMC radio. “Afterwards, we can discuss different modalities.” Afterwards, because suddenly, it’s only going to be temporary.
The people have spoken. If it’s going to hurt soccer, the Hollande Tax is dead. And so the backpedalling process has started. But he has other problems. He dared to speak out against the austerity policies that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is imposing on the Eurozone. He wants stimulus and state-funded mega-projects instead. And he wants to renegotiate Merkel’s fiscal union pact that 25 EU member states already signed. But now word leaked out that Merkel roped in three powerful allies and lined them up against him—to keep Sarkozy in power.