France's Hollande set for low-profile London trip

PARIS Tue Feb 28, 2012 3:05pm EST

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PARIS (Reuters) - French Socialist Francois Hollande will travel to London Wednesday in a low-key campaign trip to meet the left-wing opposition leader and expatriate voters but will not see Prime Minister David Cameron or financial sector officials.

Hollande, who leads the opinion polls for the April-May presidential vote, is having to rely on support from allies such as Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, because the conservative leaders of Britain, Germany and Italy have declined to meet him.

After lunch with Miliband, Hollande will make a speech at King's College, then address members of the expatriate community in the British capital, as candidates court an overseas electorate that has grown by a third since the last election.

Around 300,000 French people live in London, often attracted by better career opportunities. The fact Hollande will stop to address some of them underlines the potential impact of the growing overseas vote in what could be a close-fought election.

The expatriate population has doubled in 15 years to 2.5 million people, and the 1.1 million registered voters outside France could mean half a million votes if turnout matches past years. Around 350,000 expatriates voted in the 2007 election.

Hollande has no plans to meet financial sector officials about his ideas for bank regulation, taxes and renegotiating the new European Union treaty on economic governance after he branded the world of finance his "enemy" in a speech last month.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is battling to narrow Hollande's poll lead since he entered the race formally two weeks ago, has yet to announce campaign stops in Europe, but his years of globetrotting in office give him a big advantage over Hollande, who lacks even ministerial experience.

"This trip is part of a general push to nudge European politics toward growth, employment and the fight against financial risks," a member of Hollande's campaign team said.

"Even if Britain is not in the euro, it plays a key role in what the 27 do," he said, referring to the 27-member European Union which encompasses the 17-member euro zone.

INCUMBENT

Hollande has rattled Europe-watchers by saying that if elected, he would seek to amend the EU's new fiscal compact to tack on clauses on growth and solidarity.

"We need a different kind of Europe," Hollande said late on Monday, asked about his Europe stance during a TV talk show. "We need this treaty, but renegotiated with a growth element."

Hollande says he does not want to pick apart the treaty on budget stability, but for creditor nations to make pledges on growth just as debtor countries make austerity cuts.

Cameron vetoed the new treaty in January. Diplomatic sources say he has no plans to discuss that or other issues with Hollande ahead of the two-round election on April 22 and May 6.

Neither he, German Chancellor Angela Merkel nor Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti want to be seen opening the door to a challenger in an election where the incumbent is running.

While Cameron has stopped short of formally endorsing Sarkozy, like Merkel has, he wished him well when in Paris earlier this month for a day-long Franco-British summit.

Hollande has already visited Madrid, Brussels, Rome and Berlin on his campaign to meet Socialists, including former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and EU officials.

Few believe the staunchly pro-Europe Hollande would do anything to hinder resolving Europe's debt crisis. But some are worried about his left-wing rhetoric on financial regulation.

He said Monday negotiations would be tougher because much of Europe was politically conservative. He also sent shivers through France's wealthy elite by proposing a new 75 percent tax band on earnings above 1 million euros per year.

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