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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.