[Marxism] French Premier’s Push Toward Center Opens Rift on the Left

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 16 13:39:50 MDT 2014

NY Times, Sept. 16 2014
French Premier’s Push Toward Center Opens Rift on the Left

PARIS — Hours after President François Hollande purged leftist members 
of his government last month for opposing his economic policies, Manuel 
Valls, France’s combative prime minister, climbed a stage before 
hundreds of cheering French executives and called for a new relationship 
with business to lift France from its malaise.

He admonished the left wing of the French Socialist Party to stop 
posturing against capitalism, then launched into a lengthy pro-business 
discourse that drew a standing ovation. “France needs you,” he told the 
bosses at the annual summer conference of the Medef, France’s employers’ 
union. “And I love business!”

His speech could have been taken from the playbook of Tony Blair, the 
former British prime minister, who persuaded his Labour Party to pivot 
to the center in the 1990s. But in France, that brand of talk is opening 
a fractious rift within the Socialist Party, between leftists who fear 
their leaders are abandoning the party’s ideological core and others who 
believe that a centrist makeover is needed to save not just modern-day 
Socialism, but also France itself.

Mr. Valls has called a rare confidence vote in the National Assembly for 
Tuesday, as he tries to corral his party toward reforms and away from 
what he calls “old Socialism.” While his government seems likely to 
succeed, several leftist lawmakers have threatened a rebellion, and, if 
the vote fails, it could precipitate new elections.

Not just in France, but across Europe, the enduring economic malaise has 
convulsed governments and sent the political left into a existential crisis.

Even as momentum builds against the austerity policies that Germany has 
pushed on the eurozone, the question remains whether Europe can afford 
the welfare systems that have defined the left for generations and that 
critics blame for ushering in the debt crisis in the first place. But if 
the left now backs away from its ideological touchstones, then what does 
it stand for?

Mr. Valls is trying to answer that challenge by calling on his party to 
embrace policies that emphasize growth over social protections as 
Europe’s leaders look for ways to stimulate their economies. He has 
forged a new solidarity axis with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, 
who has embraced freer markets and labor reforms but, like Mr. Valls, is 
also seeking to push back against deeper cuts in public spending.

At a social-democratic rally in Bologna, Italy, this month, both men 
appeared tieless and in matching white shirts, hugging each other and 
promising to “unblock Europe.”

“Renzi and Valls have broken with the old European Socialism the way 
Blair did,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist who studies the 
left in France. “Valls is trying to embody a real modernization of the 
Socialist Party, by challenging the state and putting more confidence in 
the markets.”

So far, it has not been easy. In the cabinet reshuffle last month, Mr. 
Hollande ousted Arnaud Montebourg, a populist economy minister, and 
replaced him with Emmanuel Macron, a wealthy former banker at Rothschild 
who is seen as more friendly to business.

The moves left the traditional base of the Socialist Party feeling angry 
and betrayed. Yet to critics elsewhere, the changes still felt like an 
unsatisfying attempt to split the difference between setting a new 
direction for the party and remaining true to old Socialist ideals.

“The problem is that Hollande and Valls don’t embody anything at all,” 
said the French economist Thomas Piketty, whose book “Capital in the 
Twenty-First Century” explores social inequality in France and 
elsewhere. “They are trying to make people believe that Germany is the 
only country responsible for the catastrophic austerity policy which has 
plunged the eurozone into stagnation.”

“But in truth,” he added, “the problem is that they are scared of any 
progress in terms of policy and budgetary union at the eurozone level, 
which would yet be the only solution to get out of the crisis,” but was 
likely to require future trimming of the state to meet the European 
Union’s requirements.

As a tell-all book published this month by Mr. Hollande’s former 
companion Valérie Trierweiler accused him of secretly despising the poor 
— calling them those “without teeth” — a TNS Sofres survey published in 
Le Figaro gave the president only 13 percent support among the French.

“France is rotting from the top,” Nicolas Baverez, a conservative 
economist, observed in a recent editorial in the magazine Le Point. “It 
is the victim of a political system that is pretending to manage 
everything, while in reality, it stumbles.”

Mr. Hollande’s weakness has elevated Mr. Valls as the de facto strongman 
of the French government, with a mission to rebrand France as a country 
that is open for business and willing to temper traditional French 
protectionism with a warmer embrace of the free market.

Known for his outspokenness and frenetic energy, Mr. Valls is seen as a 
freethinker in French politics, and has at times been called the 
“Socialist Sarkozy” — a reference to Nicolas Sarkozy, the former 
president, whose conservative Union for a Popular Movement party was 
also tough on issues like immigration and security.

In the French news media, Mr. Valls is presented as a partisan of “the 
uninhibited left,” Socialists who challenge traditional reforms 
established by the left. In his 2010 book, “Power,” Mr. Valls emphasized 
the “exhaustion” of the social-democratic model, which he described as a 
confusing mix of left and right policies. “Even worse,” he wrote, “it is 
the left that is now incapable of rejuvenating the welfare state by 
adapting it to the realities of our time.”

Jean-Jacques Urvoas, a Socialist legislator and a close friend of Mr. 
Valls’s, called him a “prickly” man with a “modernist” approach. “He 
doesn’t kowtow to the great figures of the left; he is an iconoclast,” 
Mr. Urvoas said.

Mr. Valls fashions himself as a torchbearer for the center, seeking 
peace with the business community and revisiting bedrock Socialist 
tenets like France’s 35-hour workweek. If Mr. Hollande’s mandate grows 
weaker, there is little doubt that Mr. Valls will try to pick up the 
mantle for the Socialist Party heading into France’s 2017 presidential race.

“He doesn’t have that soft image that Hollande does; in that sense he’s 
viewed as more presidential,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, an economist 
at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. 
“For now, he must follow Hollande’s policies. But if the captain of the 
ship has to bow out because he is too weak, he would fancy himself 
taking a crack at it.”

But the latest polls show Mr. Valls losing popularity, too, and if the 
government’s tilt toward the center does not produce better economic 
results, he will be deeply discredited.

To shore up his Socialist credentials, Mr. Valls has taken pains to 
address “the French who are suffering.” But Mr. Valls is also limited in 
how much he can go beyond the policies already outlined by Mr. Hollande. 
For now, the two men are, perhaps uncomfortably, joined at the hip.

While Mr. Hollande has made clear he will not impose new austerity 
measures, Mr. Valls must still persuade left-leaning members of their 
Socialist Party to sign off on cuts of 50 billion euros, or about $65 
billion, already pledged through 2017 — something that will remain a 
hurdle even if the confidence vote passes on Tuesday.

“It’s politically tough to do when you have a left wing of the Socialist 
Party that want no cuts of any kind in the social welfare state,” Mr. 
Kirkegaard said. “That’s where Valls’s main political fight will be.”

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