What Hollande must do next

The French Socialist must clarify his mission before the second round.

I haven't been following the French election with microscopic care - but it is important for the future of Europe and the future of the left.

With the first round results now in, it looks significant for politics too.

My immediate reaction to the results - having watched clips from what I thought was a rather downbeat if calculating Nicolas Sarkozy, a careful François Hollande and a heady Marine Le Pen - is that the anger of the voters has not been pacified or persuaded by the answers of the main parties, and so they have turned to hard right and left.  The answers of the mainstream parties work for just over a quarter of voters each (and the French deserve to be congratulated for voting in larger numbers than us), but they are too timid, technocratic or unconvincing for the rest.

That is a pretty serious state of affairs.

Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are not "two ends of the spectrum" since the former is a proto Fascist and the latter a strong redistributionist but not an extremist.  However, it is very striking that their combined vote share is greater than either Hollande or Sarkozy.  I am not sure that has happened before. It sets the stage for a real debate in the country about its future.

For President Sarkozy, the message seems to be "you've had your fun, the real election starts now". I would guess his team have war-gamed the next final ten days very carefully - starting with the call for three debates in his election-night speech. For Hollande, the danger is that he looks for tactical feints and compromises, when I think he would be far better off meeting Sarkozy head on. I was a little surprised that Hollande seemed to have no equivalent announcement or call to the Sarkozy debates proposal. The truth is that Sarkozy promised reform in 2007, but has run out of steam. It is obvious that he will try and paint Hollande as an ingenue or apparatchik, not ready for the "3am call".  Hollande needs to be able to come back and ask why if experience is such a great thing, Sarkozy has achieved less in each successive year in office.

Answers are always more detailed than anger - but that is because they are actually going to be implemented.  The trouble is that the detail can obscure the anger or mission that is inspiring the answers in the first place.  I would like to see Hollande clarify that mission in the next ten days. His front-runner status is built on the unpopularity of President Sarkozy personally, but that is not enough.

He needs his programme to provide answers.

So when Sarkozy says that France faces big questions I think Hollande needs to say yes.  That applies on public finance, where there hasn't been a French budget surplus for forty years; on economics, where it needs to raise its productivity; and on social policy, where it needs to infuse the French dream with some meaning.  Meanwhile on Europe the 'Merkozy' groupthink on austerity is a disaster, but Hollande cannot afford to ignore deep scepticism among voters and markets about Europe's ability to get to grips with the groaning imbalances within the Eurozone.

Hollande was chosen over his rivals for the Socialist nomination because he was a pragmatic centrist.  He has not disappointed a party starved of a Presidential election win for 24 years.  The short term danger for him is that he spooks the markets and then the voters.

But the medium term danger is that he colludes in an economic strategy that breaks the back of European politics.

Hollande is right to emphasise growth. Europe needs some bold strokes if it is to reverse declining confidence in its ability to turn things round.  That is partly about showing that the commitments to stand behind Euro membership are real.  But it is also about fiscal policy in creditor countries - the Dutch government's collapse this week shows the problems there.  And it must get into the issues of innovation, productivity and investment that are key to Europe's future.

Technocrats like Mario Monti in Italy and worried right of centre leaders like Mariano Rajoy in Spain will not want to start a fight with German orthodoxy, but they will join in if the French start the debate going. They know that there needs to be a change of course.  They just don't have the power to bring it about.

In the end economics may be global but politics is local, and Hollande speaks to French character and history in a way that is, well, very French. I hope he makes it.

David Miliband is the MP for South Shields. He was environment secretary (2006-2007) and foreign secretary (2007-2010)

 

Francois Hollande is seen at the window of the city town hall during the first round of the 2012 French Presidential election on April 22, 2012 in Tulle, central France Photograph: Getty Images.

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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