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French Frontrunner François Hollande: "The French Don't Work Less Than Others"

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A President of France who has never been a cabinet minister? Until recently, the thought would have been absurd. But the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal has thrown France into turmoil. François Hollande, the mild-mannered regional governor brought in to replace DSK, is leading the polls. Metro interviews the man who may be France's next president.

What are the most immediate steps you will take if elected president?
My first decision will be to propose to our European partners, in particular but not exclusively to Germany, to commit to a new stage of European financial and economic development. For example, I propose project bonds to fund EU initiatives that are likely to prepare us for the future in infrastructure, energy projects, higher education and research. We need to pay more attention to the growth rate throughout the EU. At a national level, my first political decision will be tax reform and reform of the banking system. We need to regain control over finances through, for example, separation of deposit and investment banks.

What are you going to do to improve France's economy?
France's main economic problem is the continuing deindustrialization, and the deterioration of our trade balance. That's something that has been happening for the past 10 years. France needs a more ambitious economic policy. I suggest we implement economic policies geared towards the development of small and medium enterprises, something that could be achieved by industrial policy measures and the reorganization of business tax.

France is well known for its favorable working conditions. Could it be that people just have to get used to working harder?
Let me set the record straight: the French don't work less than other EU citizens. More importantly, France has one of the highest levels of productivity in the world. In no way have the French have chosen to live in a leisure society where others would have chosen to live in a society driven by effort. And I firmly believe that the current economic situation requires a huge effort on a national scale to which all must be committed if we are to come out of the crisis.

Angela Merkel and David Cameron are openly supporting Sarkozy. What 's your reaction?
Right now the incumbent has the support of some of the Conservative foreign leaders. But what I really care about is the support I will get from the French on April 22 [the election] and May 6 [the run-off]. If the incumbent relies on the support of foreign leaders, I see this dependence as nothing more than an admission of weakness. If I'm elected, I'm convinced that I and other EU leaders will be able work together under good conditions. And I have the support of progressive Europeans, in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and elsewhere. Note that my proposal to renegotiate the EU treaty meets a growing echo throughout Europe. France's position in the EU is such that it can't be ignored. On the other hand, France shouldn't take advantage of this position by acting with arrogance or abusing its authority but rather used it to call for more respectful relations between European countries.

There's EU summit after EU summit on Greek bailouts. Wouldn't it be better to just cut Greece off?
The increase in the number of summits is due to the fact that the Conservative leaders have been slow in taking in the situation they were faced with, both its scale and how to respond. Leaders have told EU citizens we were finding solutions when in reality all we were doing was buying time. As a result, it took longer than necessary to face up to the fact that the only possible economic solution, and one backed by European Socialists from the beginning, is the need to restructure Greek debt via private creditors. These decisions should alleviate the situation, but it will only be a long-term solution if they allow Greece to boost its productivity and avoid another debt crisis in the future. We need to help Greece; removing it from the Euro-zone won't help. Doing so would result in a political flop and economically things would just get worse.

Sarkozy and Merkel are spearheading an ever-closer European Union, but most EU citizens are cynical. Is the EU growing too close, too soon?
I'm convinced that the only way we will overcome the eurozone crisis is through more economic and financial integration between the member states, but on two conditions. The first is that it favors growth: the recovery of public finances is only a means, and austerity is by no means a goal or a value in itself. The second, and what I see as the only sustainable solution out of this crisis, is that EU membership by new countries be a democratic decision made by Europeans. I don't think Europeans are cynical, but I do believe they are disappointed. They're skeptical of the benefits they've been promised tomorrow's Europe will bring. It's up to us political leaders to demonstrate that Europe is a solution, not a problem. But in order to do so, we will need to face the decisions made by the people of Europe. The European Union will never be able to improve if it hasn't first improved its democratic function.

Are you optimistic regarding the future of the euro?
I don't think it would be reasonable for us to persist with a policy whose sole objective is strictness. Let me be clear: if I'm elected, France will remain committed to control deficits, and from 2013 onwards the deficit will be lowered to 3% of GDP, allowing for a stabilization of accounts by 2017. But a strict budgetary approach alone is not enough to solve the situation in the Euro-zone. If we do not reduce current imbalances within the euro zone, then I remain pessimistic. What does make me feel optimistic is the fact I'm convinced that political and economic solutions do exist, as long as every member state, without exception, takes on its share of responsibility.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the presumed Socialist presidential candidate, is mired in scandals. Has the DSK case changed French politics?
I'm not in the position to comment on the investigations. Regarding sexism in politics, what I've seen is that the more progressive French are putting in huge efforts to attain political parity. Unlike the majority of the incumbent's party, mine will consist of 50% female candidates to the legislative elections. And the next government, if we were to win the elections, will have 50% women.

You style yourself Mr. Normal. Is being normal really an asset?
I said I wanted to be a 'normal' president. By that I mean that I'll respect public institutions, act as the guarantor of the independence of justice and protect the freedom of the press. From this point of view, everyone will see the difference with the institutional practices we have observed in France over the past five years. I want to try and stay close to French people, their values and their lifestyle. I'm not pretending to be the same as everyone else in order to get people to like me: I chose a political career because I like people. So yes, because of my respect and love for the French, I prefer my approach to be normal, respectful and genuine, not full of promises everyone knows I won't be able to keep.

Previously published in Metro, www.metro.lu