We don't need your foreign models

Jacques Attali says France must modernise but not copy others

Let's begin with some bad news for our friends: France is alive and well.

France, and the French left in particular, is not going to surrender to any model. France will never become a carbon copy of any other country. And the French left will continue in its own way, albeit modernising all the time with the help of new technologies.

Yes, France is an exception, but no more than any other country is an exception by its history, geography and culture. There is no reason, therefore, why the French left and right would seek to imitate any other doctrine or set of rules coming from outside. The French left is a mirror of French society, pursuing social justice and social mobility. It is no different in other countries. Britain's Labour Party, for example, would lose if it sought to imitate the Danes or Italians, let alone the French Socialists.

France has been built around a strong central state, a unified language and grand projects. This has made France what it is today: a strong nation, with a high standard of living, with life expectancy increasing by three months each year, excellent transport infrastructure, and with more foreign direct investment, more tourists and more foreign residents than any other European country, including the UK.

If France is an exception, it is happy to be one. It cannot, and should not, destroy its main attributes just to please its competitors. There is no such thing as a universal, ideal model for the left that France and others should imitate. There are only national situations. In policy terms, the future of the left lies not in surrendering to a market economy, but inventing new ways of balancing the market with democracy. This balance, and the means of achieving it, are specific to each country.

That is why, in this presidential campaign, there is an agreement among all the parties of the centre left to keep a balance between the power of the state (crucial for welfare as well as for protection of the language, industrial policy, policing, defence, foreign policy, social security, higher integration, social integration, energy, health and pensions) and the power of the regions (in charge of culture, innovation, the environment, roads and schools).

The defence of the French language as the cement of the nation is one of the state's key roles for the future at a time when globalisation suggests that other nations are failing in that fight. Neither left nor right in France wants the country to become a patchwork of indigenous communities.

France has many problems - high unemployment, lack of mobility, weakness of higher education, housing, social integration of minorities, public debt and threat of industrial decline, to name a few. But there is no model outside France to solve these problems.

The British left may have had success with some of Britain's own difficulties, but it has had huge failure with others. Deeply rooted in British history, it cannot, by definition, be a model for anyone else.

The French left is happy to consider the British exception and to admire some dimensions of it, such as its employment policies. But it should be warned against imitating the whole recipe. For instance, it believes passionately in assimilation, and should be wary of imitating the dangerous shift in British society towards atomised lives or separate communities. It is also not convinced that a nation can survive without a strong industrial backbone. The United Kingdom cannot consist solely of the City of London.

France, therefore, will build on its assets: a strong state, an efficient health system and a strong industrial basis, and try to reduce its main weaknesses by improving mobility, research and competition.

The next challenge will be to introduce new ideas to the doctrine of the left, in France as elsewhere. Globalisation has so far taken place only in the economy. We need a globalisation of democracy, too. For that, we need to imagine the use of new technologies in politics, the wider provision of information and a new concept of participatory democracy. We need to consider the acquisition of skills as an activity worthy of a decent salary rather than exploitation. We need to reorganise and revive the institutions of global world governance.

These are some of the things that all leftist parties of the world should work for, together, instead of trying to export their own very specific recipes to environments that are totally unsuitable for them.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times