Why Mrs Royal is right not to demonize Tony Blair edit

July 8, 2006

Having been asked to write an article about Segolene Royal, I started by checking about her on Google. The first heading that came up said 'Buy Segolene Royal on e Bay'. I don't suppose she really is for sale, but in a way the item seemed to me appropriate. E Bay is a prime example of the new economy, the advance of information technology and globalisation. These are changes sweeping though all Western societies, but ones to which France is finding it particularly hard to adapt.

-->It will not be able to adapt without greater innovation on the political scene than has been seen over the past fifteen years. France is an example of what one could call a 'blocked society'. It is a country that has turned in on itself. In recent surveys, less than 10% of the French population sees globalisation as a positive force, a far lower figure than in any other EU country. France is not an unchanging society. Some of its leading companies, such as Danone, have become global and have shown themselves fully capable of responding effectively to the demands of the new global marketplace.

The political class, however, on both sides of the spectrum, has found it much harder to embrace change. Lionel Jospin's government and that of Jacques Chirac have one thing in common - neither has been able to make a significant dent in the formidable socio-economic problems France faces. Unemployment remains stubbornly entrenched. Youth unemployment and long-term unemployment are particularly high. Only 63% of the labour force are in work, compared to well over 70% in better-performing countries, such Sweden, Denmark or the UK. As a consequence the French welfare system is simply unsustainable, even in the short-term.

Is Mrs Royal someone who could alter all this? It isn't clear. Popular though she is with the electorate, she lacks a developed political position, although she is clearly striving to find one. Her web-site contains the first ten chapters of an emerging political manifesto, allowing participants to add their own contributions to the volume, due to be published in September.

She has made some (to me) encouragingly maverick remarks, at least in the context of French left orthodoxy. She has spoken out against the 35 hour week. She has recognised that crime and social disorder have to be dealt with in the here and now and has called for the introduction of community service and parenting schools to deal with hardened offenders. At the same time, she has spoken up for the rights of women and children, and has said that she supports the legalising of same-sex marriage and adoption. But of a coherent economic agenda there is little sign. Like Nicolas Sarkozy, she speaks of the need for a break with the 'French way', but also of the need to protect jobs and increase security in the face of globalisation.

To the chagrin of many on the left, she speaks of her admiration for Tony Blair. Yet she might well misunderstand both the nature of Blairism and what brought Tony Blair to power (as well as kept him there for the past nine years). Blair has been widely portrayed as a leader lacking in policies or in a vision for the future - a creature of the media age, all spin and no substance. Or otherwise he is seen as someone who has tacked to the right, betraying the principles for which the left stands.

Both views are quite out of touch with the reality. One cannot win elections, let alone deliver reform, through charm alone, a principle that Mrs Royal would do well to bear in mind. Ten years of detailed policy work, carried on by a verity of academics and other policy specialists, preceded Blair's rise to power. Labour has been successful in its policy agenda only because of this work, which is still continuing today.

That agenda is quite often portrayed in an absurd way by leftist critics in France. Since Tony Blair came to office, over two million people have been lifted out of poverty. The state has been strengthened - the proportion of taxation in relation to GDP has risen to nearly 42%, the EU average. Youth unemployment and long-term unemployment are very low. With over 75% of the population in work, large amounts of new public money has been invested in health and education. A national minimum wage is in force, set quite high. Active labour market policy helps ensure that workers who lose their jobs can move on to others. The economy has outperformed those of most other OECD countries since 1997, let alone EU ones.

It is not a betrayal of leftism to recognise, as Labour has from the beginning, that crime and public order are real issues, which affect people in poorer areas in particular. 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime', Tony Blair's famous dictum, has a very real content in Labour policy. 'Anti-social behaviour orders', which allow the local authorities to take action against juvenile gangs or rowdy neighbours are seen by critics as infractions of individual freedom, and hence as 'anti-leftist'. In fact they promote the freedom of the many in a community. How free am I if I dare not go our at night because of worries about roaming gangs? How free am I if I cannot walk in my local park without worries about being mugged?

I'm not suggesting that Mrs Royal, or any other aspiring centre-left politician, should copy Labour's agenda. The history, and therefore the needs, of France and Britain are in some respects quite different. The UK is recovering from eighteen years of Thatcherism, during which public services became run down and inequality and poverty increased sharply; but levels of joblessness were lower than in France.

France needs welfare reform, reform of labour markets to help generate more jobs, measures to help small businesses to prosper, and above all reform of the state. The CPE reforms were a mistake, because they attempted to concentrate economic insecurity upon the young, formalising the situation that already exists. It is the divided labour market itself in France that needs to be broken down, since it is both economically inefficient and inimical to social justice. The principle, 'Protect the worker, not the job' is the only one compatible with both these objectives, as the experience not only of the UK but also the Scandinavian countries shows.

If Mrs Royal does make it to become Presidential candidate, and then President, she will need not just an integrated agenda but a lot of will-power and determination. But please don't anyone say she should be a left of centre Mrs Thatcher! Mrs Thatcher did far more harm than good in Britain, as did Thatcherism in general across the world. Today it is a dead philosophy. If it were offered on e-Bay it would be difficult to sell to anyone.