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Hollande opts for France’s Blair

Hollande opts for France’s Blair

Nomination could shift Paris over Putin and Green politics

by Denis MacShane

Tue 1 Apr 2014

France’s embattled Socialist president, François Hollande, has crossed the Rubicon by naming Manuel Valls to head his government. Valls is a pro-market right-leaning Atlanticist who makes no secret of his admiration for Britain’s former leader Tony Blair. His nomination could bring a tilt away from overdone Green politics in France and strengthen European politicians taking a harder line against Russia over its Ukrainian ambitions.

France’s new prime minister believes the market, not the state, should shape economic growth, creating jobs and prosperity. Nor does he hide his view that more European Union integration is the answer to Europe’s malaise. This puts him at odds with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron who says less Europe is the way forward. Valls says tougher control by Brussels over national EU budgets is positive if it forces governments to tax and spend intelligently.

France needs massive reforms and a revolutionary assault on vested trade union interests and old state-centred thinking. Valls does not lack ambition, will and energy. But it remains questionable whether he commands sufficient support in the French parliament and in the Socialist party.

If he succeeds, France will return as a co-equal with Germany in the modern concert of Europe. However, many entrenched left-wingers in France will not want him to do well. In that case, Hollande’s fate is sealed. He will lose comprehensively the next French presidential elections in 2017.

The former interior minister’s nomination came after the humiliation of the ruling Socialists in Sunday’s mid-term municipal elections. The Socialists lost control of 115 cities and towns, although their candidates won as mayors of Paris and Lyon as well as in the symbolic European capital Strasbourg.

The centre-right opposition party, the UMP, was the main winner but its share of the vote at 45% was lower than the 46% it won in 2008 in similar mid-term elections. Marine Le Pen’s nationalist-populist Front National won 7%. The level of abstention reached 40% as France gave its entire political class the thumbs-down.

Hollande moved swiftly to sack his German-speaking prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has constantly delivered a below-par performance.

I have known Valls since he entered the international political scene as the spokesman and key advisor of the French Socialist, Lionel Jospin, who became prime minister in 1997, one month after Tony Blair became Britain’s prime minister.

Valls admires Blair not because of his support for the Iraq war but in view of his four years as one of Jospin’s closest aides up to 2001. After the French Socialists were swept away in 2002, Valls spent a decade asking the core question that few on the left in France have wanted to pose, let alone answer: How does modern social democracy function in an era of global-individualisation when the classic 20th century ideas and organisation of the left no longer have purchase?

The title of his 2008 book Time to Bury the Old Socialism and Finally Become the Left expressed commitment to market-oriented thinking at odds with traditional French Socialist statism.

The new prime minister sees France through untainted eyes. Like Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s predecessor as president, who bravely tried to reform the French economy but fell foul of elite Parisian opinion, Valls is not 100% French.

Valls was born in Barcelona in 1962 and became a French citizen aged 20. He speaks Catalan, Spanish and Italian. He joins the new Socialist Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago, who was born in Cadiz, as two of the most powerful politicians in France with personal backgrounds on the other side of the Pyrenees.

Valls is a tough politician with plentiful experience of political machinery gleaned from 35 years of Socialist party in-fighting. In many ways, he is the antithesis of Hollande, from a conventional bourgeois family and a classic French énarque – a graduate from the elite École national d’administration. Hollande’s government is stuffed full of fellow énarques. Their prime minister studied history and while a fluent communicator, he makes no pretence to be a grand intellectual.

One question Valls kept asking whenever he and I met in Paris or elsewhere was: ‘How did Blair keep winning elections?’ He saw quickly that the French Socialist government after 1997 was going nowhere in comparison to the élan and innovation of the pre-Iraq war Blair administration.

The French Socialists have never won two consecutive parliamentary majorities. Former President François Mitterrand’s two-term 14 years as president disguised the reality that in 1986, 1991 and 1995 voters ejected Socialist ministers. Valls saw the same fate befall the 1997-2002 Jospin government. By comparison, Blair seemed a miracle worker in winning three elections in a row.

Valls has been an acoloyte of Michel Rocard, a long-time Mitterrand rival and former prime minister, who recently wrote a long essay in France’s biggest-selling weekly Nouvel Observateur on why modernised social democracy was the only way forward for the democratic left in France.

The dominant ministers in Hollande’s government tend to stem from the deuxième gauche stable of social democratic modernisers.

However, Hollande’s move to nominate him is controversial. The decision of the French Greens headed by Cècile Duflot, the environment minister, to quit the Hollande coalition in opposition to Valls’ nomination underlines the difficulties the Socialists face in shifting to a pro-market, pro-industry position. The Greens’ exit allows Valls possibly to reconsider Hollande’s announcement ruling out shale gas exploration before the 2017 French presidential election.

The EU’s energy policies have been crippled by German Green politics against nuclear power. This has handed Russia’s President Vladimir Putin a trump card in exerting geopolitical pressure on Europe. France under Valls may start to reverse subordination to Green ideology and kowtowing to Moscow.

Valls is the antithesis of the traditional French left. A strong Atlanticist and supporter of Israel, he has taken part in Bilderberg Group conferences which are a chin-wag meeting of pro-American, economically liberal politicians. Often depicted in sinister conspiratorial terms, Bilderberg outings are quite dull. That Valls chose to accept an invitation speaks volumes.

Denis MacShane is former UK Minister for Europe and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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