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14 June 2017

France and Britain are living each other’s 1997 elections

The early-election-coming-back-to-haunt-you? The French do it better.

By Pauline Bock

A young, charismatic centrist sweeps a general election with a country-wide landslide in support of his liberal manifesto. Across the Channel, a seasoned centre right politician learns the hard way that calling an early election to increase a party’s parliamentary majority can spectacularly backfire.

This sounds like a fair summation of the past few weeks of 2017, but it could just as easily be two decades ago, as long as you’re prepared to switch around which country is which.

Politics in France and Britain have always been fundamentally opposed – different systems and constitutions, media cultures and leading figures, not to mention that small event in France when they killed all kings and queens – but in 2017, the two countries’ political developments seem to be mirroring each other. Or what they were, 20 years ago.

Emmanuel Macron has been compared to Tony Blair countless times, and the comparison seems fairly obvious. Just like his New Labour forerunner, the Europhile “Gallic Blair” has seduced the electorate, revolutionised his country’s politics, and is heading for a parliamentary majority that will allow him to comfortably push for his modernist reforms.

The real Blair even went so far as to send him his best wishes in a Le Monde column after Macron’s win in May. “Great exploit!” Blair wrote, offering his advice: “Focus on the most important matters, make sure measures have a real impact.” Macron (who has also been compared to John F Kennedy, Napoléon and Nicolas Sarkozy) is said to have enjoyed the compliment.

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But Britain, has also been imitating 1997 French politics. In April 1997, as Jacques Chirac’s centre right party RPR (now Les Républicains) controlled a vast majority in parliament and faced little opposition, the French president decided to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale and call a legislative election one year early, to gain a bigger majority in parliament and implement a series of reforms that autumn.

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You can guess what happened next: it was a massive self-own, of the kind we’ve just seen from Theresa “strong and stable” May. In June 1997, the Socialist Party won 44 per cent of the vote, giving it a majority in the house and putting it far ahead of the 24 per cent secured by Chirac’s RPR. Instead of a strong-ish and stable-ish deal with the DUP, president Chirac was forced to recalibrate his government and to name a Socialist as his new prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the “cohabitation”, the French version of the hung parliament.

Ironically, the move was also supposed to help Chirac carry out a referendum concerning the European Union, specifically about the euro. Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May should have spent a little longer studying 1990s French politics.