[Marxism] French Premier’s Push Toward Center Opens Rift on the Left
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
By LIZ ALDERMAN and MAÏA de la BAUME
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
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
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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