French President François Hollande. Photo: Getty
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Where has the French Left gone?

The recent dissolution of the government reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook.

Can a Socialist government committed to austerity measures still be called Socialist? This is one of the questions facing the French Left following President Francois Hollande’s recent decision to disband the government to expel voices critical of his new economic direction. The dissolution – the second in six months – has been described as a purge of dissident voices, with the replacement of, among others, the now former economic minister Arnaud Montebourg, an avowedly anti-austerity figure who takes a Krugman-esque line, by business-friendly former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who controversially questioned France’s sacrosanct 35 hour working week. Montebourg recently publicly blamed Hollande for choking the economy with spending cuts and has become the symbol for a movement of Leftist rebels, “les Frondeurs”, who argue that France should not be “aligning itself with the obsessions of the German right“.

Montebourg’s replacement is a confirmation that the government’s direction on economic matters would not be open to question. The dissolution comes after two previous reshuffles, the previous of which saw the appointment of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister in March, a move which was widely seen as an attempt to resituate the PS in the political centre, given Valls’ commitment to cutting public spending and reaching out to the business sector. The new cabinet reflects Hollande’s commitment to Valls’ vision and willingness to sacrifice the left of his party, for whom a central sticking point has been diverging visions on how to revive France’s flailing economy, with Hollande’s camp advocating cutting, against those who favour more borrowing.

The dissolution reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook. Despite two years in power, the government has failed to reverse growing unemployment and growth this year has been downgraded to 0.5 per cent. Hollande’s shifting strategy now involves integrating voices more conciliatory towards his centrist line, best exemplified by his new chief of staff, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a former minister under center-right former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Hollande began his presidency with the strongest mandate for any left-wing government for 30 years, including a Socialist majority in the National Assembly. But his political wavering combined with personal scandals and his decision to dissolve the government three times, have left the public sceptical as to his abilities at a time where public confidence is at an all-time low. Polls indicate public approval ratings of just 17 per cent, and Hollande is now the bearer of the unenviable title of most unpopular president since polling records began. Whereas his Socialist predecessors all left their mark in the form of a significant social reforms (income support under Mitterrand, the 35 hour working week under Jospin, etc), it remains unclear what social contribution will mark Hollande’s legacy.

The same president who rode the anti-austerity wave to power and terrified the City with comments like “the finance sector is my enemy“ has been seen to be increasingly toeing the German line. Despite his promise to get tough with the finance sector, the appointment of a former Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist as new economic adviser says otherwise and the recent reshuffle has been seen as the replacement of Left-wing socialists with finance sector aficionados. For many within the party, this represents a betrayal of the very mandate Hollande had been elected to carry out.

Over the last week at the Socialist summer convention in La Rochelle, Prime Minister Valls has sought to portray himself as the purveyor of “Leftist realism” in the face of those accusing him and the government of kowtowing to austerity measures, repeating that the government “doesn’t practise austerity“ despite plans for further public spending cuts and tax breaks for businesses. But the balancing act which sees Hollande simultaneously try to appease the EU call for budget restraint while maintaining the support of the left wing of his party, has inevitably left him looking weak and ineffective. Even among Socialists, only 58 per cent have confidence in the government’s plan.

And despite a strong mandate, the Socialists have been unable to truly implement policies which reflect Leftist principles, instead, they’ve been restricted in that implementation by EU directives and arguably forced to rethink the very nature of Leftist economic policy. If Leftist politics is about rhetoric and not substance, given that the substance is decided elsewhere, the result can only ultimately be disillusionment with mainstream politics. This leaves “Flanby”, as President Hollande has been nicknamed, looking very wobbly, but it also plays into the nationalistic rhetoric of the FN, which rails against EU intrusions. Ultimately, a divided and incoherent Left leaves the way open for Marine Le Pen to target those workers traditionally more likely to lean Left. This is all the more worrying when one considers that a recent poll put her at the top of the next presidential race, and in light of the erosion of support for the radical Left party, where the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon has recently stepped down.

The dilemma was succinctly summarised by Montebourg in an interview with Le Monde, in which he stated: “If we align ourselves with the most extreme orthodoxy of the German right, this will mean French people’s votes have no legitimacy and alternatives do not count.” The danger of further disillusionment with the main parties is the inevitable outcome.

For the French Left, there seems to be two competing visions. Either support a re-vamping of the Socialist party to fit the limitations of the EU framework and in so doing, ultimately alienate a core, ideologically motivated grassroots or call, as some of the radical Left have, for the setting of national objectives in defiance of the limitations imposed by Brussels (possibly as part of a movement for a Sixth Republic, as advocated by Radical Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon). The third – and possibly more likely – option involves infighting within the Socialist party, which will likely paralyse the government. Could the narrow room for manoeuvre for political parties as imposed by the EU ultimately undermine national politics to the extent of buttressing radical parties? The rise of the Front National could be one indication of this. It remains to be seen whether the Left will succeed in offering a competing vision to Le Pen’s increasing monopoly of that protest vote. What is more certain is that the infighting within the main parties on both Left and Right could mean politics will increasingly be played out on the margins.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.