Sarkozy finally releases spending plans as vote nears

AFP , Thursday 5 Apr 2012

French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveils spending plans seventeen days before the first-round of elections take off; announcing an increase in sales tax, restricting immigration and reducing payroll charges on employers

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy prepared to finally unveil a detailed manifesto Thursday with just 17 days to go before the first-round of what promises to be a close-fought presidential election.

Thousands of copies of his programme had been printed in slim booklets, as the right-wing incumbent pulled into the final straight of his race against Socialist challenger Francois Hollande and a chasing pack of outsiders.

Polls put the frontrunners neck-and-neck in the 22 April first round, but forecast Hollande will win the 6 May run-off, ending the Socialists' 17-year losing streak and consigning Sarkozy to history as a one-term president.

Sarkozy's response to his rival's lead was to be unveiled in the manifesto, but most of the measures have been flagged in advance.

He was to announce plans to increase sales tax from 19.6 to 21.2 per cent, reduce payroll charges on employers, restrict legal immigration, reform professional training, tax exiles and balance the budget by 2016.

Sarkozy will also confirm that he will continue to reduce the size of the French state, principally by not replacing all retiring civil servants, and seek savings totalling 115 billion euros ($150 billion)—to come from 75 billion in cuts and 40 billion in new revenue.

The president's campaign team have also promised that the document will contain a few headline-grabbing surprises—perhaps a reduction in the cost of earning a driving licence in order to help labour mobility.

Sarkozy's adviser and speechwriter Henri Guiano said the manifesto would be accompanied by a "Letter to the French" to share "his conviction that we can no longer wait to change a number of things."

The French leader has already warned he will resort to calling referendums if his reform plans are blocked in parliament or the courts, and Guiano said he wanted to "change globalisation, change Europe, change France."

Hollande has long since published his own 60-point plan and backed it up this week with a detailed legislative calendar for his first year in office, which he expects to begin with a parliamentary election win in June.

"Change will begin straight away," he declared on Wednesday at a campaign meeting with his former partner, Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate who was defeated by Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race.

Hollande is seeking to woo voters resentful of Sarkozy's austerity programme with plans to reduce the speed of spending cuts, renegotiate the EU fiscal pact, cap fuel prices and introduce a 75 per cent supertax on high earners.

The Socialist candidate said the left "has never been so ready to govern", a claim dismissed by the leader of Sarkozy's UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, who argues Hollande's spending plans would lead to a Greek-style debt crisis.

According to an opinion poll published Wednesday by the CSA institute, Sarkozy ought to come out on top in the first round with 30 per cent of the vote to Hollande's 29 per cent. There have been similar results in other recent surveys.

Among the outsiders, hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon has run a strong campaign so far and is polling at around 15 per cent, eating into Hollande's first round support, but not likely to catch him.

Far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen is hovering at 13 per cent and seems unlikely to match her father Jean-Marie le Pen's 2002 feat of winning a place in the run-off. Centrist Francois Bayrou has slipped into fifth place.

According to CSA, if the second round were fought this weekend, Hollande would comfortably beat Sarkozy with 54 per cent to 46. It found that 59 per cent of Hollande's voters were backing him as an "anyone but Sarkozy" candidate.

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