French foreign policy: so far, François, So good

On foreign policy, the French president is proving skilful and radical.

Given France’s importance as a world power, a member of the UN Security Council, one of the world’s largest economies, a nuclear power, and a driver of the EU project, French foreign policy under President Hollande is of fundamental importance to all of us.

Ironically no one mentioned foreign policy in six months of presidential campaigning. And Hollande is without a nano-second of government practice, let along international experience. Unnervingly, therefore, the answer to the question "Whither France in the world?" is quite simply "We don’t know, because no one has told us".

Hollande arrived at the Elysee Palace this month without much of a foreign policy narrative at all. And yet he was immediately confronted with numerous top-level international meetings of unprecedented intensity. On the day of his inauguration Hollande flew to Berlin to discuss the contentious issues of the Fiscal Treaty with its arch-backer Angela Merkel. After that it was to the United States for his first meeting with President Obama. Hollande had uncomfortable news – France would be pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. Then it was on to summits with the G8, NATO, G20 ones, and last but by no means least, the EU.

Even an experienced diplomat like Kissinger would have found this taxing. Hollande was faced with challenges of breathtaking complexity for a man whose recent overseas experience amounted to little more than put-putting around Greek islands on his motor scooter. However, just two weeks in and he has been doing rather well. We may be facing an unusual phenomenon in French politics: some politicians, through a difficult to analyse combination of virtù and fortuna, are lucky.

When, at the start of his presidential campaign, Hollande said he wanted to renegotiate the Eurozone Fiscal Treaty people laughed. It sounded as if Hollande was just making it up, and that he would pay the price with stock market chaos and Merkel’s ire. But fortuna has been good to him. It soon became clear that he was not alone in wanting more emphasis on growth and less on austerity. Italy piped up, as did Greece, and when Hollande met Obama , even he told him the US wanted stimulus growth in Europe. Even Germany may be changing its tune. With the German CDU getting a drubbing in the May North-Rhine Westphalia elections, and Merkel facing further elections in 2013, its vice-like grip on austerity no longer seems both politically as well as economically unquestionable. Hollande increasingly looks not just competent in capitals across Europe and North America, but also a man possessed with forethought.

Likewise, to tell the leader of the free world that to distinguish himself from his main rival in the election campaign he had to promise French troops would be withdrawn early from Afghanistan is not an easy thing to raise during your first meeting. But once again, luckily for Hollande "Home for Christmas" is logistically near impossible. 3,500 troops, 900 vehicles and 1400 containers cannot be removed from Afghanistan before December. Hollande will withdraw the troops, but in a way that will not trigger the fury of the Americans, while dismaying his domestic audience.

So far, François, so good. It won’t always be like this though. Cuts in spending – in defence especially – are looming, as are a mountain of other problems. And they are truly Himalayan: the ongoing Arab Spring, Syria, Iran, Sub-Saharan Africa. But many of these states are happy with a Hollande presidency. In his desperate attempts to beat off the challenge from the far right, Sarkozy’s campaign angered many of these African States, with its undertones of colonialism and even – intended or not – racism. And France’s former colonies really are ready for a new kind of relationship with the Motherland, who has sometimes been anything but maternal.

But it is not just new relationships with foreign powers that Hollande must forge. He needs quickly to develop a new foreign policy rhetoric and narrative that will define his presidency. Since de Gaulle, a certain logic has driven French foreign policy and the French Socialist Party’s overall foreign policy has not been markedly dissimilar from the mainstream right’s. That is a real shame, for new ideas and approaches from the intelligent, sophisticated, and politically thoughtful French would be so welcome in the world today, given the challenges the world faces.

For today at least, Hollande is one of the luckiest politicians in the history of the Fifth Republic. It remains to be seen: he may turn out to be one of the most skilful, and in foreign policy at least, the most radical.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe

French President François Hollande meets with Barack Obama following their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition