Even Britain’s media which tend to regard elections in third countries other than the United States as exotic irrelevancies had to give some attention to the French campaign which has taken on a continental significance.
The first, obvious point is made by the simple question- who said participative democracy is dead? The French campaign has shown that electoral politics can still engage people: the turnout (initially predicted gleefully by the UK media as likely to be low) exceeding 80% in both rounds: the huge TV audiences for the main debate but also for the long interviews with candidates in the first round; the tens of thousands turning up repeatedly for the rallies of at least four of the candidates. This election had a vitality which puts our own democracy to shame.
Labour particularly should look at the experience of the French Socialists. How can one explain their comeback? The turning point was the decision to hold open primaries for the picking of the Presidential candidate. The debates between the contenders, the comradely atmosphere in which they were conducted, the brilliant organisation of the primaries despite some lame attempts by Sarkhozy’s party to discourage turnout put the socialists centre stage, gave the designated candidate legitimacy, and placed the political debate firmly on socialist territory. With three million electors voting in the primaries, the ownership of the campaign was widened, and the commitment of activists and supporters secured.
The third information we can glean from the campaign is that Europe has now become a major election issue in national politics. But contrary to the fears of many insiders, the most pro-European of the candidates won and not by concealing his Europeanism, but by projecting a European message of change and reform. Sarkhozy’s blatant attempts to seduce supporters of Marine Le Pen with attacks on free movement, and support for the return to national frontiers along with the traditional eurosceptic threat of the ‘vacant chair’ convinced few and failed to gain traction. On the contrary, Hollande’s determination to balance the Austerity Pact with a European wide growth strategy struck a chord with an electorate that is sophisticated enough to understand that it is European economic policy and performance which will determine how and in what shape Europe emerges from the crisis.
The fourth element lies in the Socialist programme itself. Whatever the caricatures in the press, the 60 point presidential manifesto is an eminently social democratic document. This was neither a throwback to a socialism ‘red in tooth and claw’ of another era, nor New Labour-style triangulation. It is a limited, costed platform which gives priority to public investment to create jobs and to education. Hollande also proposed a new style of presidency to the French weary of the omni presidency, of bling and affairism. And he demanded an early withdrawal date for French troops in Afghanistan. Most importantly he refused to kowtow to the increasingly strident anti-immigrant clamour from the right, and bravely maintained his probably unpopular commitment to give long term immigrants voting rights in local elections. The lesson for Labour is that a radical break with the rightwing consensus is politically viable, provided it focuses on essentials and is financially coherent.
The most important lesson of the Socialist victory of May 6th must be drawn by Brussels and other national capitals. Franco-German cooperation remains essential to keep Europe on the rails. But it needs to be less one-sided. The demands for growth policies capable of stimulating job creation must now be heard. An effective growth strategy requires more than just labour market reform and perfecting the single market. An economic policy which creates real jobs requires using the resources of the EU Budget, the European Investment Bank and, indeed, the European Central Bank to support a continent-wide infrastructure programme, research and development, training and innovation. A policy based on regulatory reform without resources will not rescue Europe from the long-term doldrums.
If Europe draws the right lessons from the stunning election of François Hollande, it can set the integration project on a new path, and start to claw back the support that has recently been seeping away towards nationalists, populists and demagogues.
Waterloo, May 6th 2012