PARIS (AP) – With the first round of voting for France’s next president taking place on Sunday, here’s a look at the issues that have dominated the campaign:
With unemployment near 10 percent, jobs are the overwhelming No. 1 concern for voters. French police fired tear gas last month at steelworkers worried about job losses, as they tried to force their way toward conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign headquarters.
_ Sarkozy hasn’t put a figure on how many jobs he hopes to create _ perhaps fearing he would break another campaign promise, such as his 2007 pledge that there’d be full employment come 2012. He has promised to increase salaries for 7 million of France’s lowest paid workers. He has also proposed new training programs for the jobless, but is spooking some workers by saying only those who sign up for training will get unemployment benefits.
_ Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate and poll frontrunner, has put employment high on the agenda, saying he’ll create 150,000 jobs by 2017, 60,000 of them in teaching. He also wants to restore the retirement age of 60 for those who have worked more than 41 years. Sarkozy had raised the age to 62. Some of his proposals could raise eyebrows abroad, as governments enact austerity measures elsewhere in Europe.
In France, public spending already accounts for 55 percent of economic output and the tax burden is among the highest in Europe. But many voters feel Sarkozy’s first term has been too friendly to the rich and too hard on the poor and middle class.
_ Sarkozy says he prefers to spend less than tax more to weather the financial crisis but he does propose an increase in the VAT sales tax by 1.6 points to 21.2 percent. In a surprise to business leaders, he plans an extra tax on the revenues of France’s top companies.
_ Hollande, who once quipped “I don’t like the rich” on TV, got a boost in the polls after he announced a proposal to slap a 75 percent tax on earned income over (EURO)1 million ($1.3 million).
_ But even that pales in comparison to the promise made by firebrand leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who wants 100 percent fat cat tax on income over (EURO)360,000 ($470,000). He is polling in fourth place.
EUROPE’S DEBT CRISIS
French candidates have clashed over how to alleviate voter fears over the European debt crisis, with Sarkozy stressing austerity and Hollande pushing to stimulate growth. Concerns about France’s economy became more acute when Standard & Poor’s stripped it of its top AAA-credit rating earlier this year.
_ Sarkozy has championed a new European treaty to achieve closer political and economic integration and longer-term confidence in Europe’s finances.
_ Hollande caused controversy within the EU when he said he would not endorse the EU fiscal compact if it fails to promote growth. He says relying on austerity alone will drag Europe’s fragile economy into a prolonged recession. Hollande also backs the creation of a European rating agency to counter the American-based ratings agencies.
Securing French borders is a hot election topic, with government estimates that some 200,000 immigrants enter France each year. France, a former colonial power, is home to an estimated 5 million Muslims _ Europe’s largest Muslim population.
Sarkozy caused controversy when he pledged to pull France out of Europe’s borderless “Schengen” zone unless progress was made on protecting EU borders from illegal immigration.
_ Sarkozy has a tough-on-immigration reputation. He has pledged to halve the number of immigrants that enter France each year to 100,000 and limit their state benefits. He has also banned Halal meat in schools and championed France’s ban on the Islamic face veil, arguing it imprisons women.
_ Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme-right National Front, has gone further, promising to aim for a reduction of 95 percent of incoming immigrants. She is running at a wobbly third in the polls.
_ Hollande has pledged to make annual reviews in parliament on how many immigrants France should allow in and wants special teams to down and reduce illegal immigration.
France’s laws against terrorism are already considered by many experts to be among the toughest in the Western world. Critics say Sarkozy, a former interior minister in charge of police and security, is trying to play to his security experience ahead of the elections.
_ Sarkozy has declared a “zero tolerance” policy on hate speech and radical ideologies. Sarkozy’s government also unveiled new counterterrorism measures this month to punish those who visit extremist websites or travel to weapons-training camps abroad, in the wake of killings by a suspected Islamic extremist in southern France earlier this year.
_ Hollande’s Socialists plan to resist those measures, saying that France’s legal arsenal against terrorism is already strong enough. Hollande has never been a minister and has little in the way of security credentials. Nevertheless, Hollande has made some key security pledges, committing to pull all French combat troops out of Afghanistan by year-end.
The first round of the French elections is April 22 and _ provided there’s no absolute majority _ a runoff between the two top candidates will be held May 6.
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