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.
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