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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.