With a popularity rating below 20%, France’s Socialist president, François Hollande, is no stranger to criticism.
But the decision on January 1st by Thomas Piketty, a French economist and bestselling author of “Capital in the 21st Century”, to refuse the award of the Légion d’Honneur was a cruel snub.
Close to the Socialist Party, Mr Piketty backed Mr Hollande for election in 2012. Now he says that his government “would do better to concentrate on reviving growth in France and Europe” rather than handing out honours.
Mr Piketty did not dwell on the reasons for his rejection of the award, other than to state that: “I am refusing this nomination because I do not think it is the government’s role to decide who is honourable.” But he has in the past voiced two broad criticisms of Mr Hollande, whose presidency he recently called a “disaster”.
First is Mr Hollande’s failure to press his case in the euro zone for less austerity and more pro-growth policies. During his election campaign, Mr Hollande promised to put an end to austerity in the currency area. In office, he then tried to rally a “club Med” group of Mediterranean euro-zone countries in an effort to force the hand of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. But it came to little, and Mr Hollande’s political weakness now is such that he has constantly been defeated by German intransigence.
Mr Piketty’s second criticism touches on Mr Hollande’s tax policy. For years the French economist has argued for a more progressive tax system, which would merge both income tax, currently paid by only half of French households, and the “contribution sociale généralisée“, a non-progressive social charge paid by all.
This too was one of Mr Hollande’s campaign promises. Yet the president has shelved any plans to overhaul the tax structure, preferring instead simply to increase taxes on the middle-classes and the rich.
Paradoxically, the one measure brought in by Mr Hollande that Mr Piketty did approve of was a top income-tax rate of 75%. An advocate of a global wealth tax, Mr Piketty once said approvingly of this flagship campaign proposal that “lots of other countries will inevitably follow this route.” Instead, the French government quietly let the 75% tax die on December 31st 2014 after it failed to bring in as much revenue as expected.
Mr Piketty is not the only French citizen to turn have turned down the Légion d’Honneur. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir both did, along with various other writers, artists and scientists over the decades since Napoleon introduced the honour in 1802. Nor is Mr Piketty the only left-leaning French economist to denounce Mr Hollande’s economic policies. Others, such as Philippe Aghion and Elie Cohen, both of whom joined Mr Piketty in backing Mr Hollande for the presidency, have also laid into his record in office.
But none comes remotely close to enjoying Mr Piketty’s international fame, nor shares his ability to damage Mr Hollande’s reputation abroad. After a televised new year address in which Mr Hollande urged the French to be more confident and less self-critical, this is a crushing snub indeed.
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