Can François Hollande begin a centre-left revival?

The French presidential election will show whether the European left is bouncing back or in possibly

If 2011 was a tough year wherever you were it truly was annus horribilis for the European left - a year of frustration and failure. Frustration as the conservative politicians who lead most European governments spectacularly mishandled the eurozone debt crisis and persisted with co-ordinated austerity programmes that have pushed many countries back into recession and driven unemployment to frightening new levels. Disappointment as socialist governments in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere were toppled from power - collateral damage from the sovereign debt crisis.

From the high point in the late 90s when Blair, Schroeder, Prodi and Jospin set the terms of debate in European politics, the centre-left has now been reduced to impotence in opposition, in power in a mere handful of countries. Although Europe is still embroiled in an economic crisis which originated in the financial sector, social democratic parties rather than their conservative rivals have been the ones to suffer at the hands of the electorate

Incumbency did not help. The governments of Gordon Brown and Spain’s Jose Zapatero were routed because they presided over the boom and then were blamed for the extent of the bust. But, more profoundly, the economic collapse created an identity crisis which social democrats are still wrestling with. Having embraced market economics, light touch regulation and a managerial style of politics in the 1980s and 90s, many centre-left parties have found themselves in political no man’s land – outflanked on the economy by liberals and conservatives and on social policy by the hard-left.  

Indeed, although social democrats in Denmark and Slovakia have taken power in the past few months, the defeat of the Zapatero government in Spain meant that the Prime Ministers of the five biggest EU countries – Germany, France, UK, Italy and Spain – are all conservative.

But is the political tide about to turn in France?

With six weeks until the first round of voting, François Hollande is very well placed to become just the second socialist to get the keys to the Elysee Palace in over half a century. Although Nicolas Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner and has improved his opinion poll numbers in recent weeks, the evidence suggests that he is picking up votes from National Front supporters rather than from the centre. Every poll so far has Hollande ahead by between six-ten points in the second ballot.

The French presidential election has taken on huge importance for the rest of Europe as well as France. The ‘Merkozy’ hegemony has led the response to the eurozone debt crisis, so it did not come as a surprise when Angela Merkel publicly endorsed Sarkozy’s re-election bid. But a similar axis of the left has emerged during the campaign. Last month, Hollande shared a platform with Ed Miliband during a campaign visit to London even if, in truth, they don’t have much in common politically. However, more robust support has come from Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the German SPD. Both Miliband and Gabriel will be acutely aware that if the French left cannot win against a hugely unpopular President who has presided over five years of economic decline, their own election prospects will fade as well.

In Gabriel’s case ideology as well as pragmatism is at play. The Franco-German axis has dominated European politics in the past few years, with the 'Merkozy' inspired fiscal compact treaty the shining example. However, we are gradually starting to see a coherent alternative from Hollande and Gabriel. Both have criticised the fiscal compact treaty, with Hollande promising to re-negotiate if he is elected, and Gabriel threatening to oppose parts of it in the Bundestag. They have also pointed out the glaring omission from the treaty, namely, the absence of any measures to promote economic growth and create jobs. We could expect to hear demands for a growth and jobs pact from a Hollande presidency.

Moreover, last summer, during the negotiations on the EU’s new economic governance framework, they signed up to a pan-European campaign ‘Let’s change Europe’ which, among other things, called for a financial transactions tax, Eurobonds and an embryonic common fiscal framework, while also decrying the “economic and social decline brought about by blind austerity policies.” Although hardly a manifesto, here are the building blocks for a revitalised European left.

The irony of post-debt crisis Europe has been that while the terms of economic debate have shifted firmly to the left, the centre-right has established a clear narrative that has driven economic policy at national and EU levels. From Berlin, London, Paris, Rome and Madrid, the mantra is the same - the debt crisis is solely the result of reckless governments over-spending and a diet of budget cuts and tax rises offers the only route to recovery.

Yet, perversely, there is little public support for co-ordinated austerity and common agreement about the need to re-balance our economy away from relying on financial services and revulsion at the excesses, and incompetence, of the self-appointed masters of the financial universe. In the past two years a raft of financial sector regulation has, most notably, banned uncovered short-selling, put in place limits on bank bonuses and regulated the derivatives market. Merkel and Sarkozy have even driven plans for a financial transactions tax – itself a policy that would have been dismissed out of hand just a few years ago.

For the past two years conservatives and liberals across Europe have tried an economic experiment that has been an abject failure, but have been allowed to do so virtually unchallenged by social democrats who have been confused and in retreat. Faced with a lost decade of austerity induced economic stagnation and social unrest, the fight-back needs to start and the French elections will offer a clear indication of whether the European left is bouncing back or in possibly terminal decline. The stakes are high. If Hollande and the Parti Socialiste cannot win when the political odds are stacked in their favour, then the prospects for their sister-parties here and elsewhere will look increasingly bleak.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande waves as he speaks during a campaign meeting in Nimes, southern France. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle