In 1981, I was there at la Bastille as François Mitterrand won control of the Élysée after 25 years of unbroken right-wing rule. I rushed back to write a biography of the new president – who, like François Hollande, was described by the monolingual commentariat in London as “unknown” – and a enthusiastic Fabian pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour. Alas, the last thing Labour wanted to do in the 1980s was to learn anything, and above all learn anything from or about Europe.
Can it be different this time? I have known Hollande on and off for 15 years and he is principally a learner. Unlike Labour in the 1980s, he reaches out naturally to friends in other countries. French Socialists are the great election losers of Europe. Mitterrand’s long reign disguised how, at each parliamentary election, the Socialists could only ever manage one term before being booted out. The same fate befell Lionel Jospin’s government, elected at the same time as Tony Blair’s but defeated in 2002.
Hollande kept asking the question: how did Labour under Blair keep winning elections, even after the Iraq war? In his campaign, Sarkozy said Hollande would take France south to become like Spain or Greece. Hollande also does political geography and he would like to take France north to become more Nordic, with a calm social democracy in place of the soaring rhetoric of the French left, which sounds good along the Boulevard Saint-Germain but makes little impact in Bordeaux or Boulogne.
Hollande’s advisers and future cabinet ministers are nearly all anglophone and anglophile, which makes it all the more strange that David Cameron blundered so badly in snubbing him. No one at No 10 even knew how to get hold of Hollande.
The coalition’s isolationist scorn for mainstream European political networking is reducing Britain’s influence. Mitterrand worked closely with Margaret Thatcher on the Falklands, on the Single European Act, on increasing the EU budget in exchange for the UK rebate and on supporting the installation of Cruise and Pershing missiles to face down the Soviet Union’s last European power play. But her descent into Europhobia pushed Mitterrand into Helmut Kohl’s arms, and there is no reason why Hollande the socialist should not work with the centre-right Merkel, especially if the German-speaking Jean-Marc Ayrault becomes his prime minister.
A top slot will be reserved for Manuel Valls, the Catalan who took out French citizenship in 1982 and who, jointly with Pierre Moscovici, another fluent English speaker, ran the campaign. When I called Valls to say “bravo” he told me that Hollande would govern from the centre with a big focus on security, illegal immigration and reaching out well beyond the limits of the left. “There will be none of the 1981 triumphalism, or the 1997 proclamations that the will of the state can carry all before it,” Valls said. The right, he warned, would return full of hate – both the ousted UMP and Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which, like Ukip and many Tories, believe that anti-foreigner politics is the only way forward.
Where does this leave Labour? Ed Miliband found time for Hollande but the British political class remains obsessed with ideas and politicians in the US.
At times, Labour appears to echo the view that the euro is the source of all economic woes. This British smugness leaves the rest of Europe bored as it looks at the dismal performance of Cameron’s pound-zone economy.
Hollande’s is the most difficult task that has faced any president of the Fifth Republic. The EU remains a composite of proud nation states and the politics of one do not transfer to its neighbours. But unlike in the 1980s, Labour is open and friendly to the new French left. If Hollande, who has promised little, achieves some of his ambitions it will further highlight the failings of Cameron and Clegg’s out-of-time politics and economic management.
Denis MacShane is a writer and Labour MP