How Bush has perverted Labour's view of Europe
Blair and Brown's failure to back Ségolène Royal illustrates how confused they are about where Britain's interests lie
Saturday November 18, 2006
Ten days ago the political class devoured every available detail about the American elections. Results from across the Atlantic were reported and analysed with barely less attention than our own general elections. Thousands of words were expended examining the implications for the 2008 presidential race and on assessing the impact on British interests.
As a participant, I have absolutely no problem with that. Yet, for all its power, America remains in many respects a faraway country of which we know less than we think. France, by contrast, remains a potent nearby country of which we know more than we imagine. And unless we can muster something approaching the same degree of serious attention to the hugely significant French presidential contest of 2007, all that coverage from Missouri and Montana is going to look politically escapist and even somewhat delusional.
Ségolène Royal's election as the Socialist party's presidential candidate this week is an event of immense importance for French politics and for the European left. Apart from anything else, it was the first time that the French left's main candidate has been chosen by one-member-one-vote and - guess what? - the members overwhelmingly chose the candidate they felt was most likely to win against the right. As Labour members proved in 1994, and the Conservatives in 2005, a democratic leadership election is the best possible way of proving that a party is in radio contact with the real world.
Royal's win is also an unequivocal personal and political mandate. Not only did she get 61% of the party's votes nationwide, thus winning easily on the first ballot, but she also came top of the poll in 94 out of France's 95 départements (only Seine Maritime - centred on Dieppe and Le Havre - rejected her), and took more than 50% of the votes in 87 of the 95. Put another way, the vote for Royal was a nationwide rejection of Laurent Fabius, who ran against neoliberalism and the EU, and for protectionist socialism, and came bottom of the poll.
Why did Royal not merely win but win so emphatically? The most obvious answer is because the Socialists understand that she offers them their only chance of defeating the right's Nicolas Sarkozy next spring. A Sofres poll for Le Figaro this week showed that with Royal as the Socialist candidate, she and Sarkozy were each on 34% in a first-round match-up, with Jean-Marie Le Pen on 13%. With Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the candidate, Sarkozy surges to a 37% to 22% advantage, with Le Pen on 14%. With Fabius as his opponent, Sarkozy does even better, 38% to 17%, with Le Pen only three points behind.
But Royal also won because she represents a general break from the failed past. This is most obvious in her gender and her nice smile - if she wins she will be the first female ruler of France since Catherine de Medici. But she is also easily the most modern and innovative candidate. Her political style is inclusive, not lofty in the manner of Jacques Chirac and his predecessors. And, above all, she is open to new ideas.
France's failure to adapt to change has become something of a national obsession. French bookshops groan with new contributions to the déclinisme debate - fuelled by high unemployment and suburban riots. "Is France broken?" asks the journalist Patrick Bonazza in one recent volume; his answer is yes. "Is France in denial?" wonders Ghislaine Ottenheimer in another; yes to that too. "Can France recover?" muses the centrist UDF party deputy Christian Blanc; only if it abandons its arrogant refusal to learn from other countries and its fatalistic belief that nothing can be done.
This is also very much Royal's view. Her speeches may be stuffed with elegant adjectives and abstract nouns in a way which sounds like Gallic waffle to British ears, and she may as yet be extremely unspecific about how she intends to achieve her goals, but there is no missing the recognition that things must change, not just in her party but in France. There is no mistaking a key political influence on her either. Royal's acceptance speech yesterday spoke of modernisation, individual choice, respect, justice with order, and even "education, education, education".
It is vital to see all this in a bigger context. If there is one big thing that could revitalise Europe in the balanced and moderate way that Britain temperamentally espouses, that thing is a change of direction in France. Without such a change, very little is possible. With it, much could happen. There is a respectable historical case, bolstered by too many of the Chirac government's international actions, for saying that nothing will ever really change much in France. Yet next year's election will nevertheless come down to a choice between two menus for change. On the right, Sarkozy's neo-Thatcherite cocktail of tax cuts, big-bang institutional upheavals and tough law-and-order, directed at immigrants in particular. On the left, Royal's neo-Blairite concoction of economic flexibility, cultural liberalism and reducing social exclusion.
Presented with this choice, where do Britain's major parties stand? The Tories have already openly embraced Sarkozy, who returned the compliment when he addressed their conference last month by video link. But Sarkozy is also very much Labour's candidate next year. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown will say it publicly, but each believes that Sarkozy will win and has persuaded himself that this outcome is in Britain's interests.
Nothing better illustrates how Labour's failure to understand the Bush administration has perverted its view of Europe and minimised its once hoped-for influence there. In election after European election, Labour has made pro-Americanism and zest for economic liberalism the sole yardsticks of where British interests lie. They have been for Aznar against Zapatero in Spain, Merkel against Schröder in Germany, Berlusconi rather than Prodi in Italy - and now Sarkozy rather than Royal in France.
Sometimes, such choices may indeed be the lesser of two evils, as in the need for change from the failed Schröder. But when the party of the left has begun to embrace modernisation and the right is led by a scoundrel, as has happened in Italy and France, Labour's moderate social-democratic interests, and Britain's interests in Europe, should lie decisively on the side of the centre-left party. Let Blair and Brown root for Sarkozy. The rest of us should embrace the most hopeful development in French politics for a generation.