Redefining the Left – Manuel on a Mission

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With President Hollande in a slump of historic proportions from which no recovery seems possible, it’s now down to his new “superstar” Prime Minister to redefine French Socialism

Something appears to be about to give within the French political system and the republic itself. Many parallels are being drawn between the current economic/political landscape in France and that of the UK a couple of decades ago.

Back then, the British Left had seemingly lost the ability to effectively convey its message to the populace, who had become seduced by the new form of liberal economics that promised opportunity for all – dished out by Thatcher’s Conservatives and given the international imprimatur from the USA under Reagan.

The answer for Britain’s Left came in the form of Tony Blair – a man who unashamedly targeted the middle ground, unceremoniously dropping much of the ideology of the Left in favour of creating a more populist manifesto. The British political commentator Stuart Hall described it as “a great parade leading nowhere.”

The crisis that the Socialist Party in France faces now is also one of a seemingly impossible ability to convey its vision of the future to its people. Hollande appears to have played his last trump card in his recent appointment of Manuel Valls to the position of Prime Minister and there is much to suggest that the Barcelona-born wunderkind of French politics is already working on a re-working of French Socialism as we know it.

The current Prime Minister does have to do something. It’s hard to believe that it’s only two short years since the Socialist Party was brought back to power on foot of a presidential election campaign that promised a return to growth, youth unemployment as a priority and the world of liberal economics as the enemy.

There has been virtually no progress on any of these fronts and voters’ frustrations spilled over into the far-right in the recent European elections. Facing a populace that doesn’t appear to see any merit in the ideas espoused by the Left, Valls is already embarking on a change of plan that many left-leaning commentators fear will be France’s own version of social-libéralisme.

The conditions that gave birth to social liberalism of the 1990s – a kind-of submission of democratic socialism to neo-liberal globalisation ideas – are not the same as they are today.

For Valls and the French Left, the choices are different. In terms of economic policy, the line that the Valls government is currently following is virtually the same as that followed by the Right since 2002. On that point, all the French media are in agreement.

The big danger for the Socialist Party now is that the worsening economic situation in the state is forcing them into a corner where they might forever be associated with cost-cutting measures that will have the result of fortifying inequality and poor working conditions for the majority of French people.

Valls has always tried to strike a note of strong leadership; as someone who will protect the French people from their “crisis of identity” as well as the economic crisis, using language that calls on all French – be they from the Left or Right of the spectrum. In his speeches, he repeatedly uses words such as “homeland”, “nation” and “Republic”.

Valls seems to be going for what you might call a “socio-conservative” ideology: the notion that a French republic based on a protective meritocracy can be tailored for a successful insertion into a world of economic globalisation.

The two don’t seem to fit, but it remains to be seen whether or not this is a smokescreen before the next election or a real change of direction for the Parti Socialiste. In any case, Valls’ authority is not likely to be threatened. Essentially, he is the French Left’s last and only hope right now. His rise to power has been as fast as it is unconventional. The recent routing of the Socialist Party at the local and European elections presents a realistic and terrifying vista for the PS of total marginalisation (like Fianna Fáil in the last general election in Ireland). No-one dares oppose the guy who remains popular through it all and who gives the impression of knowing what he’s doing.

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