Show Hide image

François Hollande: a very social democrat

A victory for the French Socialist candidate would be of historic significance.

Once again, the French are going to change Europe. The 1968 movement buried the stale, conservative society of the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1981, the French put a Socialist into the Élysée and Communists into government at a time when the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal steamroller appeared to have conquered world thinking.

In 2012, as all of Europe – Britain included – follows an orthodoxy that punishes the poor and rewards the rich, the left has come back to life in Europe’s second-biggest economy.

Nothing is guaranteed in elections but poll after poll now puts the Socialist candidate François Hollande on track to become France’s next president on 6 May. What’s more, in the first round of voting, on 22 April, there is likely to be a significant vote for the populist leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other radical candidates. France is expected to be the first country that rejects the diktat of the markets and French citizens will politely say to the Economist and Wall Street Journal that their ideology should not reign supreme. With all of Europe – from Warsaw to London, from Sweden to Spain – under right-wing control, the eviction of the right from power in France would be of historic significance.

How has Hollande achieved this? While the BBC has focused on the absurdities of oddball right-wingers contesting the Republican nomination in the United States and most papers have indulged themselves in frissons over Marine Le Pen, the French left has quietly reinvented itself.

Hollande is reversing the usual pattern of European left-wing parties seeking power: that of over-promising and under-delivering. He sounds more like a cautious Nordic social democrat than a windy French rhetorician. He is a graduate of France’s best-known grande école – l’école de la gauche perdante. He watched François Mitterrand and then Lionel Jospin arrive in office with big ideas but gradually become demoralised as their Socialist generosity confronted economic realities. Thanks to the seven-year term of presidential office, Mitterrand stayed in the Élysée for 14 years but the French Socialists could only ever manage one five-year term of government with a majority in the national assembly.

Hollande is fascinated by how northern social democracies, including Labour under Tony Blair, managed to win consecutive terms of office. I met him regularly after Jospin followed Blair into office in 1997. Unlike so many top French Socialists who looked down their noses at New Labour and sneered at woolly, third-way language, Hollande noted Labour’s social spending, the maintenance of high employment and the renewal of schools and hospitals. He was struck by the contrast between Labour’s defeat of the right and the one-term Socialist governments in France.

Cutty Sarko

Hollande is helped by other factors. Nicolas Sarkozy is like those British politicians who are brilliant ministers but cannot do the top job. The president of France has to be the Queen and PM rolled into one. Sarko’s abrupt behaviour, his mood swings and his vulgar language are unexceptional attributes in modern France but they are not presidential.

His foreign policy adventures have turned sour. He boasts about Georgia but the Russians still occupy parts of the country, which Vladimir Putin has turned into puppet fiefdoms.

As for Libya, no one in France forgets how Sarkozy allowed Gaddafi to pitch his tent in the Élysée garden, while human rights abuses in the “liberated” country – combined with France’s impotence over Syria or even Mali – have exposed the president’s foreign policy failings. He obtained David Cameron’s endorsement for his re-election and boasted that Angela Merkel would campaign for him. The French, however, do not want to be told by English and German conservatives who their president should be.

The disappearance of the Greens as a political force – their candidate Eva Joly has under 2 per cent in the polls after 25 years of Greens stealing left-wing votes – also helps. So, too, does the wonderfully brazen demagogy of Mélenchon. The cheeky, cheerful ex-Trotskyist with his bouffant hair and bright red tie has breathed life into the corpse of French Stalinism.

The Communist Party, which regularly won 20 per cent or more of votes in France between 1945 and 1980, still has its networks and stashes of red flags. Mélenchon is urging his fans to vote Hollande in the second round.

If Hollande wins, the victory will be specific to France. But the implications for European politics and for the future of the democratic left are huge. The 30-year neoliberal consensus should have ended with the crash of 2008. Hollande is prepared to challenge today’s orthodoxy. Can Labour do the same in Britain?

Denis MacShane is a writer and Labour politician

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

Show Hide image

No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.