Guest Blog: What the French election means for the Left
May 5, 2012
If, as is expected, François Hollande wins La Présidentielle this weekend, it provides a boost for Ed Miliband and Labour party: a sign that perhaps the Left in Europe is, unlike the economy, on the road to recovery. In the United Kingdom, from the marginal Occupy movement to disgust over bankers’ bonuses, there is emerging subtle dislike of unregulated neoliberalism (even if most people don’t know what the term means). Meanwhile, Miliband leads in the polls, by perhaps 11%, despite being unpopular personally with voters. However, there is a danger that the correlation between the French election and the state of British politics today is overstated.
Firstly, when faced with criticism over their handling of the economy, David Cameron and his government have been able use two simple excuses: our economy is heavily affected by the Eurozone crisis; and over-spending by Labour makes austerity necessary. Sarkozy cannot do this. Sarkozy came into power in 2007, before France’s GDP fell, before France lose its AAA rating and before public debt rose significantly. He has been a key figure in determining Eurozone policies. Going further back, he was an interior minister under the last government, and the Right has been in power since 1995. This means neither he nor the Right can be given ‘the benefit of the doubt’, and so he has a harder challenge defending his economic policy in the presidential election.
The gripes with Sarkozy are not (just) about austerity, whereas anger in the United Kingdom at the centre-right administration is directed at cuts and public sector reforms predominantly. Sarkozy has introduced some reforms to the state but has also indulged in anti–immigrant rhetoric (the link is but one example) and “Countless voters have told pollsters that Sarkozy’s personality and style turned them off”. As The Economist, which has generally been supportive of the UK coalition government, despairs:
This newspaper endorsed Mr Sarkozy in 2007, when he bravely told French voters that they had no alternative but to change. He was unlucky to be hit by the global economic crisis a year later. He has also chalked up some achievements: softening the Socialists’ 35-hour week, freeing universities, raising the retirement age. Yet Mr Sarkozy’s policies have proved as unpredictable and unreliable as the man himself. The protectionist, anti-immigrant and increasingly anti-European tone he has recently adopted may be meant for National Front voters, but he seems to believe too much of it.
Overall, the French election is being fought on different grounds to one in the United Kingdom would be.
Further to this, France notoriously has much anti-globalisation sentiment. As this report says:
The polls are unanimous in reflecting this collective fear: the French have long been particularly worried about globalization, much more so than their neighbours. A 2007 report by the Centre d’Analyse Strate´gique confirms this pattern: 71 per cent of the French people polled stated that globalization was a threat versus an opportunity, compared to only 47 per cent of Europeans in all EU countries.
Of the ten candidates in the first round of voting (who were under equal air-time rules), four were to the extreme left, one was a Green candidate, and one was Hollande. Of the right-wing candidates, Le Pen and Sarkozy do not promote the Economist-style open market, free-trade policies. Again, there is a very different atmosphere in France to the United Kingdom: economic policy is more to the left, so it is easier to get elected on ‘Big State’ promises like those of Hollande.
The final consideration is a simple one. It is that political fortunes in United Kingdom and France are not closely linked. Left-wing François Mitterand was president from 1981 to 1995, whilst the Tories were in power in Britain; and the French had a right-wing government for all of the New Labour years.
Calmez-vous, toute la Gauche britannique!