The French left’s ideological drought affects Europe. The crisis of European progress can be understood as the outgrowth of crises in a number of western welfare states, such as France, where austerity, immigration and global capitalism are associated with doom, insecurity and risk.
In twentieth century France, social movements were primarily led by left-wing groups, whilst the right generally took an economic standpoint in its social and political vision. Left-leaning intellectuals largely shaped the societal vision. But the picture has evolved since, and the inability of the left to generate new ideas, whether at the political or social levels, needs to be palliated by ideas coming from the right. Fresh ideas can bar the way to radical Euro-skeptic views, for financial sacrifices and immigration are opportunities.
In 2012, the Socialist Party has sought to re-enact the societal change promised by Mitterrand but this fell flat just like in 1981-83. The French have still not come to terms with immigration and economic liberalism. A forward thinking centrist right has a great hand to play with. Free from socialist discourse it can articulate the vision of European capitalism where the gap between solidarity and capitalism would be bridged. European capitalism could be sourced inside the French model, as long as France is able to evolve.
The recent report on integration in France by the French think tank Terra Nova was an attempt to reinvent the French model, but failed precisely because it threatened what it should have sought to protect. It suggested altering the Republican model to facilitate assimilation. Even the government distanced itself from a document it had sponsored. Socialists are stuck with a European model they cannot subscribe to and have no alternative to. This is easy ammunition for contesting parties such as the Front National.
The UMP and centrist affiliates of today should find the thematic of Europe, multi-culturality and global economic dependency much easier to comprehend and to discuss. Hollande is, at least officially, implementing policies that are at odds with conservative French socialism. The French socialists may oppose measures advocated by Brussels but must none the less operate in the context of treaties and European legislation. The fact that the current government has not been able to curb the increase in unemployment and to reduce public spending are not indications that it is distancing itself from European directives – it simply demonstrates it is applying the wrong remedy.
Whilst the centrist right is determined to have a dialogue on the current state of the French model, the left seems caught off balance on this topic. This could be because the left feels uneasy with the economically liberal model visible across Europe. The right, which envisions a lighter version of the welfare state with fewer civil servants and administrative layers, reduced unemployment benefits, nominal contributions to healthcare costs, lower corporate taxes and more working years before retirement should be more able to offer an operationally sound national welfare system blending liberal economic policies with a rejection for outright individualism. Economic dynamism, entrepreneurship and an outlook that extends beyond their own borders are the lungs France needs for its heart to beat.
The brewing of a renewed domestic vision associating security with multi-culturalism on the one hand, and solidarity with capitalism on the other is possible. Today is an opportunity for the reformist right to speak up on issues where the extreme right has recently been monopolising sound bites. Responsible capitalism involving solidarity à la Française combined with sustainable public spending will carve the way to a confident France domestically.
If the right could stop being afraid of words and if the French could begin to accept France is in relative decline and in need of an urgent revolution in thinking…it could articulate a convincing plan to reverse unemployment, overcome the deficit and begin to reduce debt and social dumping. The French people’s rapport with Europe could also be altered. Confidence in the state’s ability to perform at home would dissipate what people see as threats to the French model coming from abroad and funnelled into the EU.
The French need a genuine national dialogue in which the left moves beyond its ideological boundaries to prevent extremes from hijacking the debate. By attempting to protect a twentieth century unsustainable welfare conception, the Socialists can only favour Euro-skepticism. In a number of EU countries and particularly in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom, movements contesting the legitimacy of the Euro, rejecting successive enlargement phases, struggle with a seeming loss of identity associated in their minds with the single market and the disappearance of frontiers.
A new contestation wave could materialise in May 2014. In practice, this means many Euro-skeptics could be handed seats in the European parliament. The FN in France is in good marching order; UKIP has managed to reduce Europe to a sinking ship in Britain; and Germany's AFD is predicted to have within its reach 8% of the votes. Whilst these movements in France may not come across as a shock, they are for Germany where pro-Europeanism has been the credo of recent times. National discourses in the European heavyweights will surely have a snowball effect on the course of the EU under the next legislature.
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