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. 

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.