French lessons

Marie-Noelle Loewe

Marie-Noelle Loewe argues that the birth of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement in France holds lessons for the moderate left here

Sometimes, history does indeed repeat itself. So September 2016 has felt a lot like September last year: waiting for the result of the Labour leadership election, with a sense of doom that members are likely to have made a huge collective mistake.

In the weeks and early months after Jeremy Corbyn took over the reins of the Labour party, I tried to maintain my hope that things would be all right. Maybe the promised ‘new politics’ would turn out to be more than just a slogan, maybe this decent man would also turn out to be a decent leader.

But this year, I know better and so for me the feeling of doom has been much, much worse this year than last. The leadership election has not simply been about Corbyn vs Smith, or even just about the future of the Labour party. For me, it’s been about the future of the moderate left, and its ability to remain relevant in this country.

The meaning of moderate is not written in stone, but broadly speaking, it means a belief in progressive values: social mobility, equality, access to health care and good education for all, a commitment to social progress, a strong role for the state in the provision of public services. We stand for internationalism, for solidarity between people of all countries. But we also understand that practicalities matter. The road to progress is paved with more than good intentions.

At its best, the left can deliver upon those values. We have proven it when Labour was last in power: Sure Start, huge investment in schools and hospitals, the Equalities Act, and the introduction of civil partnerships which paved the way to same-sex marriage.

At the risk of stating the obvious; the majority of the electorate aren’t political activists – and they’re not always idealists. Yes, middle-class muesli-eating cosmopolitans (and I count myself among them) will often vote with their hearts and their conscience. But the people the left claims to represent, those who feel left behind and disengaged, those who are anxious about their jobs and the basic ability to feed themselves and their children, will vote for the party they trust to provide a sense of financial security and stability. In those much quoted words: ‘It’s (and always will be) the economy, stupid’.

In France, there are striking parallels with what we’ve seen here. When François Mitterrand became President in 1981, he abolished the death penalty, introduced the 39-hour week and, despite only being reluctantly in favour of German reunification, worked closely with Helmut Kohl to further European integration. France’s current socialist government introduced same-sex marriage and gave gay parents the right to adopt.

But moderate is not the most accurate word to describe France’s Parti Socialiste. Stuck in entrenched inter-party battles, and trying to apply outdated solutions to contemporary challenges, the government continues to lose support with the electorate, and the next French president is unlikely to be Francois Hollande. After failing to tackle unemployment and generate economic growth, the PS is losing its relevance – just like the Labour Party under Corbyn.

Emmanuel Macron understands this. When it comes to politics, he is a rare phenomenon. After several very successful years at Rothschild, he joined President Hollande’s close advisory circle in 2012. Macron has never joined the Socialist Party as a member, nor does he have a mandate from the public. Nevertheless he joined Hollande’s government as Minister for the Economy in 2014. Even his political adversaries reluctantly admit that he is exceptionally bright; his marriage to his former philosophy professor 20 years his senior polls extraordinarily well with women.

Frustrated with the entrenched political debate between the left and the right and the lack of response to France’s economic and social challenges, Macron launched a new political movement, En Marche (Forwards) earlier this year. Last month, he resigned from the government to focus entirely on this new political force.

En Marche’s programme is based on a blend of economic responsibility and social progress. Instead of austerity, Macron promotes badly needed structural reform. He addresses France’s over-reliance on the state and argues for a stronger civil society and less rigid institutions. He recognises that these reforms will be unpopular with many, but his basic assumption is that ‘French people are smart’ and that if reform is properly communicated to them rather than imposed on them, they will support it. In France’s highly elitist educational system, En Marche stands for higher social mobility, especially for those from a lower socio-economic background.  He is a strong believer in Europe, but recognises the immensity of the challenges it faces. He knows that Europe, just like the left, needs to reform to remain relevant; both need to deliver for the people again.

In a rare similarity with Corbyn’s Labour, En Marche infuses new energy into an apathetic electorate. The difference is that Macron is attractive to conservative and liberal voters as well as to those of the moderate left.

So far, En Marche has more than 80,000 members, broadly as many as the Parti Socialiste. It has yet to pass its first electoral test, which is likely to be the elections to the National Assembly in 2017. If En Marche does badly, it is unlikely to continue to grow its current momentum. However, should it do well, the creation of a new centrist party with the values of the left could just become a role model for the future of Europe’s socialist and social democratic parties.

For Labour and the moderate left, this means that we have to decide what we stand for; it cannot be for the party itself. We have to focus on what makes us relevant, and how we deliver social progress. We have to be an electable voice. But we should not close our eyes to the possibility that we may have to become a new party in order to move, to borrow Macron’s term, forwards.

Image: Massmo Relsig

 

 

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