L’Exception Francaise and Lessons for Labour

Francois Hollande will more than likely make it. He will, at the same time, make history. Not only is Hollande the first Socialist since Francois Mitterand, elected President in 1981, to come within reach of the French Presidency, his agenda is diametrically opposed to the current European orthodoxy.

As analysed earlier on this blog, Hollande is putting forward a credible plan for resolving the current economic crisis which relies on growth as well as austerity. The 60 proposals out forward by Hollande represent a radical departure from 10 years of conservative government in France. Hollande is also keen to renegotiate the Euro “fiscal pact”. His policies put forward a much needed alternative to the stagnation and lack of vision currently gripping the European Union and beyond.

While Hollande’s success is probably only confined to France, we should not underrate its significance. This is a major change, a defining moment for the centre-left in Europe and therefore the Labour Party in the UK. Even though no two countries or political systems are directly comparable and the French presidential arrangement is a million miles away from our parliamentary process, what happens in France will obviously have an effect in Britain. When one centre left leader comes within reach of the highest office, this obviously has a knock-on effect in other countries. Hollande reaching the top can only be good news for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.  

We are, I believe, beginning to see a revival in support for the centre left. It is true, of course, that Hollande has been helped by Nicolas Sarkozy’s manic flamboyance. However, that could never be the full story. Unpopular leaders only allow the opposition to go so far. The French Socialist success is much more than that. When the votes cast for the fiery left-wing radical Melenchon are taken into account, it becomes very clear that the French electorate has voted in favour of the left.

It is, of course, true that this particular election for a President of France has not generated a high level of enthusiasm. It may indeed be the case that this is the 21st century way in elected politics; people vote out of duty rather than conviction. Yet they do still vote and show their preferences, which are moving again in a leftwards direction in France at least.

While this may be true for the majority, it would be folly to ignore the high vote for Marine le Pen. The Front National may be on an even bigger roll that the French Socialists. Gaining nearly 20 per cent of the vote is tantamount to almost winning a place at the top table. Le Pen may not be in the final run off as her father was in 2002 but the Front National is now a settled force in French politics.

This is, of course, the downside to the French presidential elections. For those of us in the mainstream Labour movement, the strong support for the Front National from blue collar workers is a huge cause for concern. The same phenomenon of ultra-right support coming from white manual workers is taking place in the UK. The real worry is that these voters used to form Labour’s core and they are turning away. The centre left across Europe ignores this at its peril. We must find a way of appealing across the board to white and black, those in work as well as the unemployed and, of course, the better off in addition to those who have less.

So it’s a mixed bag. Centre left success coupled with ultra-right wins. While we await the outcome of the second round on Sunday, I can only hope that we see and hear more analysis of this historic French presidential election than we have so far. We have in the UK been fed far too much about the United States contest with interminable excrescences about the whackiest of Republican hopefuls and very little about what has been happening on our own doorstep. And it’s the French result which will affect us the most.

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