I haven’t been following the French election with microscopic care – but it is important for the future of Europe and the future of the left.
With the first round results now in, it looks significant for politics too.
My immediate reaction to the results – having watched clips from what I thought was a rather downbeat if calculating Nicolas Sarkozy, a careful François Hollande and a heady Marine Le Pen – is that the anger of the voters has not been pacified or persuaded by the answers of the main parties, and so they have turned to hard right and left. The answers of the mainstream parties work for just over a quarter of voters each (and the French deserve to be congratulated for voting in larger numbers than us), but they are too timid, technocratic or unconvincing for the rest.
That is a pretty serious state of affairs.
Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are not “two ends of the spectrum” since the former is a proto Fascist and the latter a strong redistributionist but not an extremist. However, it is very striking that their combined vote share is greater than either Hollande or Sarkozy. I am not sure that has happened before. It sets the stage for a real debate in the country about its future.
For President Sarkozy, the message seems to be “you’ve had your fun, the real election starts now”. I would guess his team have war-gamed the next final ten days very carefully – starting with the call for three debates in his election-night speech. For Hollande, the danger is that he looks for tactical feints and compromises, when I think he would be far better off meeting Sarkozy head on. I was a little surprised that Hollande seemed to have no equivalent announcement or call to the Sarkozy debates proposal. The truth is that Sarkozy promised reform in 2007, but has run out of steam. It is obvious that he will try and paint Hollande as an ingenue or apparatchik, not ready for the “3am call”. Hollande needs to be able to come back and ask why if experience is such a great thing, Sarkozy has achieved less in each successive year in office.
Answers are always more detailed than anger – but that is because they are actually going to be implemented. The trouble is that the detail can obscure the anger or mission that is inspiring the answers in the first place. I would like to see Hollande clarify that mission in the next ten days. His front-runner status is built on the unpopularity of President Sarkozy personally, but that is not enough.
He needs his programme to provide answers.
So when Sarkozy says that France faces big questions I think Hollande needs to say yes. That applies on public finance, where there hasn’t been a French budget surplus for forty years; on economics, where it needs to raise its productivity; and on social policy, where it needs to infuse the French dream with some meaning. Meanwhile on Europe the ‘Merkozy’ groupthink on austerity is a disaster, but Hollande cannot afford to ignore deep scepticism among voters and markets about Europe’s ability to get to grips with the groaning imbalances within the Eurozone.
Hollande was chosen over his rivals for the Socialist nomination because he was a pragmatic centrist. He has not disappointed a party starved of a Presidential election win for 24 years. The short term danger for him is that he spooks the markets and then the voters.
But the medium term danger is that he colludes in an economic strategy that breaks the back of European politics.
Hollande is right to emphasise growth. Europe needs some bold strokes if it is to reverse declining confidence in its ability to turn things round. That is partly about showing that the commitments to stand behind Euro membership are real. But it is also about fiscal policy in creditor countries – the Dutch government’s collapse this week shows the problems there. And it must get into the issues of innovation, productivity and investment that are key to Europe’s future.
Technocrats like Mario Monti in Italy and worried right of centre leaders like Mariano Rajoy in Spain will not want to start a fight with German orthodoxy, but they will join in if the French start the debate going. They know that there needs to be a change of course. They just don’t have the power to bring it about.
In the end economics may be global but politics is local, and Hollande speaks to French character and history in a way that is, well, very French. I hope he makes it.
David Miliband is the MP for South Shields. He was environment secretary (2006-2007) and foreign secretary (2007-2010)