Moi, je suis Tony Blair!

The British ideas of left and right just don't seem to apply in France writes politics student Chris

The strangest thing for a Brit looking at the French political scene is having to forget all your assumptions about left and right. The concepts of left and right are so different here that it’s hard to find equivalents.

The easiest way to illustrate this is all the comparisons to Tony Blair. Nicolas Sarkozy has met with him and is a well known anglophile, Segolène Royal is credited with a Blairesque transformation of French socialism and when I went to see Francois Bayrou speak one of his supporters tried to convince me that the UDF candidate, with the same mix of support for free markets and passion for social justice, was the true “French Blair”.

As a student at Sciences-Po (the Institute of Political Studies), I often get asked how I’d vote if I could. The tendency for the parties here to straddle what seem, to a Brit, to be fairly fundamental divides makes identifying an equivalent of my centre-left stance quite difficult.

The French social state is very comprehensive (as my monthly housing benefits demonstrate) and none of the candidates are talking about significantly cutting it. Despite numerous visits to the ‘banlieues’, none of the main candidates are prepared to tackle the serious social inequalities that divide France. Instead they all subscribe to the republican dream of an indivisible French identity which comes across as both overly idealistic and very conservative in thinking to a Brit raised with 'equal but different' as watchwords..

However it is on the subject of the economy and, more specifically, globalisation where the candidates seem so at odds with their British equivalents. Sarkozy, often labelled as an economic liberal (possibly the worst insult in French politics), is lukewarm in his acknowledgement that France has to compete in the global market, rather than try to isolate and protect itself.

However, it is Royal’s approach that seems strangest to me, as someone who’s grown up with the UK Labour Party of the 1990s. Despite her modern reforming image, it’s still far from clear that she’s accepted that the superb French social system needs a thriving economy to finance it. Even the ‘third’ candidate, Bayrou seems stuck at the level of gimmicks with his policy of two tax-free jobs for every company in France.

If some of the rhetoric and policies seem alien, students involved in politics are reassuringly familiar. During a debate in a recent lecture, the Sarkozistes were perfect French equivalents of Tory Boy!

Unsurprisingly for a school like Sciences-Po, the level of political activism is pretty high, with posters everywhere and regular meetings for the different party groups. However it was when Jean-Marie Le Pen came to talk at Sciences-Po that the true level of political passion came out. Thousands of students amassed in the street and in the university buildings. I suppose it just goes to reinforce the stereotype that the French are most passionate when saying “Non” to something…

Chris Stacey is 21 and studying at the Institute of Political Studies, Paris (Sciences-Po). Next year he will return to the University of Sheffield to complete his BA in French and Politics.
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.