Blair versus Brown, a la francaise

In France, rivalry is growing between PM and finance minister. David Lawday reports

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Stubborn, left-wing France has finally taken the Blairiste route from which it recoiled: a major swing in the balance of power within the French government is bowling the country down the road of economic liberalism. But the timing looks odd. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's deep caution with regard to the market had given every impression of representing a viable alternative to the policies that Tony Blair has been wishing on Europe.

You would need to be blindly partisan to find the Jospin way a failure. The France he has sternly shepherded for more than three years is flourishing. Its economic growth tops that of all its major European partners, Britain included. Inflation is near invisible. A once dire unemployment rate (at its worst, twice our own) is coming down in leaps and bounds. The result is that a nation of vigorous complainers today professes a self-confidence unmatched in generations, excepting the odd reversion to form here and there by fishermen, lorrymen and other born grouches.

Has all the success been mere luck, a favourable roll of the world economic dice for an old left government that daftly stopped people working more than 35 hours a week? One might think so, from the hurrah accorded in past days to an un-Jospinish departure down the Blair road. The move was contrived by the finance minister, Laurent Fabius, a cool free marketeer and professed admirer of Blair.

Fabius has been in office not six months and here he is posting a new direction for France - a F120bn (£12bn) tax cut over three years affecting everyone, including a shaving of the top rate of income tax for the richest, a reduction in business tariffs and outright cancellation of an annual road tax. It all amounts, Fabius boasts, to France's biggest tax break in 50 years. The goal? A high rate of consumer spending to keep growth going. The French public is joyous. Close to nine out of ten citizens give the changes the thumbs up.

One reason Fabius has been able to prevail over Jospin's priestly reluctance to desert the left is that before being invited to take over the finance ministry - France's mightiest cabinet office - he had issued the prime minister a warning: "The left can't be beaten by the right," Fabius cautioned, "but it can be beaten by high taxes and social charges."

With elections due in 18 months for both parliament and presidential office (the job Jospin next seeks), the anxiety caused on the left by this unsolicited advice went all the deeper for the weight and experience of its author. Fabius, you see, is by any political measure a match for Jospin. Back in the mid-1980s, he was the youngest French prime minister of the century. Terrible circumstances have forced him to wait a long time for resurrection.

Now 54, he had until recently served as president of the National Assembly (speaker) since Jospin came to office in 1997. He started depressed; increasingly, he became bored. He even thought of leaving the country to run the IMF. His exile from power was a consequence of the passing of his political mentor, the late President Francois Mitterrand, and of him and Jospin locking horns in public over how far the Socialist Party needed to reposition itself in the centre. Worse, Fabius faced manslaughter charges for having been prime minister when hundreds of French citizens died in a blood transfusion scandal: the victims caught Aids because national blood stocks were contaminated. The tragedy put Fabius out of political action - for good, thought some. Cleared only last year, he still seemed barred from returning to power - until Jospin needed to put a big name in a finance ministry that hadn't recovered its prestige after the forced departure (owing to dodgy personal finances) of his brilliant colleague Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

The Socialist prime minister has proved a good deal more pragmatic and market-permissive in action than in word - which may help account for the capitalist boom he presides over - but he couldn't have anticipated just how big a comeback he was giving his old rival. A sudden power vacuum occurred in cabinet in recent days with the flouncing exit of the interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement. The prospect of autonomy for Corsica, bravely advanced by Jospin, proved too much for Chevenement. The void widens with the departure next month of Martine Aubry, the government's powerful employment and social affairs boss. Having brought in the 35-hour week, she wears the crown of queen of the left and aims to construct a provincial fortress for herself from which to sally forth as potential prime minister, should Jospin win the presidency.

Vacuums don't last long, but the interest of this double-chambered one is the speed and style with which it has been entirely filled in the public perception by the born-again Fabius. Poor Jospin: Fabius is yards ahead of him in deft presentation of policy. Acutely irritated by his rival's tendency to refer to the great tax break as "mine", Jospin has let France know that it actually comes thanks to his prime ministerial arbitrage. Oh, absolutely, smiles Fabius. But the finance minister's subsequent humble-servant description of himself as "modest practitioner" of the economy seems proof rather of Jospin's fears than of Fabius's timidity. That is what party members must have thought a couple of weekends ago, when Jospin addressed their late summer congress on the merits of the tax cuts without once referring by name to their author.

Having moved to Blairism, France now awakens to its compelling tangent - deep-set rivalry between prime minister and finance minister (read chancellor), two big guns outfiring each other, even when silent. Ideologically, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown seem more at one than Jospin and Fabius. But when top gun position is at stake, don't bet on loyalty.