The election campaign now well and truly underway in France probably matters more directly to us in Britain than the razzmatazz of the American elections in November (providing of course that the more gruesome Republican candidates are weeded out in the primaries).
François Hollande may not have been the first choice for many socialists- his very ‘ordinariness’ places charisma outside his range; his programme is cautiously social democratic, not transformative; other more exciting contenders have- how can we put it delicately?- fallen by the wayside. But he was the democratic choice of three million Socialist party members and sympathisers in an open primary which gave the Left a game-charging kick-off in the campaign. His assured performance at the rally at Le Bourget in late January, addressing 25,000 supporters (that’s ten times the size of the Sheffield rally and without the gaffes), on TV and in a programme which rightly places all the emphasis on jobs and growth have given him a head-start. In the French presidential and legislative elections in April and May of this year Europe’s Left has its first chance of re-gaining power in a major EU member state since 2004.
This matters. First it means that at the top table in Europe there will be at least one significance voice opposed to the technocratic imposition of continent-wide austerity which is the mantra of the currently all-powerful centre-right. Hollande is committed to re-negotiate the ‘Fiscal Pact’ to be agreed in principle by 25 member states in March. The French socialists do not reject budgetary discipline but want, quite reasonably to avoid arbitrary straight-jackets being imposed on member states without any accompanying measures for growth, and without adequate parliamentary safeguards. And their party has started working out a coordinated economic programme with German social democrats in the fairly confident expectation that ‘Merkozy’ will be seen by 2013 as a kind of historical aberration.
The 60 proposals in Hollande’s project, while slightly watered down from the party programme of last year, still represent a radical departure from ten years of conservative government in France, and place the right emphasis on education, social reform, active labour market policies, fairer taxation and equality measures which should be the hallmark of 21st century social democracy. Incidentally it favours the financial transactions tax, inaugurated in France to set an example- but in this he has been joined belatedly by President Sarkozy. Indeed what used to be called ‘the Tobin tax’ is now part of a continent-wide orthodoxy, with only the British conservatives- and sadly some leading figures in the Labour Party- still refusing to support an important revenue raising measure which would discourage reckless speculation while being socially just.
The election is important as well politically- as the first battle in the fight-back for the Left. Some people, including certain think-tanks which vaunt themselves as progressive, have started to take the line that the decline of European social democracy is terminal, that the left can only win power if it reneges on practically the whole range of its ideological heritage, and that embracing austerity and the shrinking state as the new orthodoxy is the only way to crawl back into office. For this new generation of social defeatists, whether they call themselves ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘Black Labour’ a Hollande victory in the Spring of 2012 would be highly inconvenient for their revisionist narrative.
For Labour this election is particularly important. If the French socialists win, it should give heart to their British counterparts and inject a well-needed dose of electoral and ideological self-confidence. More specifically the election provides an opportunity to efface the shameful harm inflicted on relations between the two ‘sister’ parties by the overt support for candidate Sarkozy from leading figures in the Labour government in 2007. The photographic images of the French standard-bearer of the Right being coached by the then Prime Minister and his spokesperson have not been forgotten in French progressive circles.
For this election in France is a European election. Chancellor Merkel realises this, and has already announced that she will campaign for her fellow conservative. The fact that it is unlikely that Sarkozy would see any benefit from being joined on the campaign trail by David Cameron does not mean that the Labour leadership should sit this one out. On the contrary, Ed Miliband appearing on platforms in France to support the socialist candidate for the Presidency and welcoming him to London when he campaigns for the votes of the three hundred thousand French nationals living there would signal a new era of cooperation between progressives Europe-wide and the coalescing of support for an alternative Europe-wide agenda of jobs and growth.
And who knows? Labour might just for once be on the winning side.
February 1st 2012, Waterloo.