Chris Walker is Ignorant

If you want to lecture the French on “economic reform”, it pays to have some knowledge of French economic history. If you insist on doing so despite knowing nothing, “Big Mouth Strikes Again” is not a good headline. Of course, it could be some downtrodden sub-editor’s revenge.

Anyway, Chris Walker writes in today’s Independent that Nicolas Sarkozy is “committed to privatisation, and many of the Mitterand legacy stakes are to be addressed, such as Renault, Safran, EDF, and Air France”. Renault was nationalised by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, as punishment for allegedly collaborating with the German occupier. This is not a legacy of François Mitterand, at least not one he’d admit to. EDF is also a creation of De Gaulle, or more importantly the technocrats who ran it and the Communist minister Marcel Paul. It is hard to find an argument that cheap power is a net loss for French industry. Air France has been semi-nationalised as long as it has existed.

Walker also repeats the content-free mantra that “a Thatcherite-style purge and return to free markets has not happened in France in the 25 years since” Mitterand – well, something. Mitterand came to power in 1981, 26 years ago, swung around to the franc fort in 1983, 24 years ago, went into cohabitation in 1986 with the Right, who forced him to privatise many of his nationalisations, won the Presidency again in 1988, won back the National Assembly…but on the way, French heavy industry went through a pretty grinding restructuring process, with tens of thousands of jobs lost. The whole coal industry was shut down. The French also invested heavily in the remaining big industries, which is why they can build trains and space rockets and mobile phone networks and we can’t.

Walker demonstrably knows nothing about France. However, he is an expert.

1..2..3..And They’re Off – The Left

On the other side of French politics, as I promised, the internal conflicts are if anything stronger. To start with the most important ones, the Socialist Party is about to do something quite rare in its history – have a contested primary election. The only other was that of 1995, when Lionel Jospin beat Henri Emmanuelli to succeed Francois Mitterand. Before that, the candidacy normally went to the party’s first secretary, who was usually Mitterand anyway. (Before 1971, when Mitterand set up the modern PS, the various splinter-groups from the old SFIO that made it up of course had their own arrangements.)

Since the disaster of 2002, though, this looks like it’s going to change, chiefly because there’s a strong external candidate. Ségoléne Royal, the head of the Poitou-Charentes regional government, has been campaigning vigorously all year with some success. The success can be measured, in fact, by the frequency with which she is being accused of “Blairism” by the rest of the possible candidates. This looks like being the content-free insult of the campaign, in fact, as could be seen with the PS official quoted by Libération who remarked that he didn’t want Royal to “come back from London and abolish the social security” – after all, everyone knows that the UK provides no social security whatsoever, right?

It would be more accurate to place Royal on the soft-left. (If anyone’s Blairite in this game, it’s Nicolas Sarkozy – this speech is a classic of early Blairite rhetoric circa 1997.) She is no more “neoliberal” than Lionel Jospin was in government, for example, or for that matter Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and is closer to the Greens than some. She is given to vaguely conservative speaking, but it’s harder to discern where a concern for civisme, secularity and Republican values (in the French sense) stops and where a rather stern law-and-order politics begins in a French context.

However, it looks more and more as if the rest of the party is gearing up for an “anti-Blairism”, stop-Sego campaign. And policy doesn’t matter very much in this sense.
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Three Points to Remember

February in Paris, 1983. A group of student leaders are ushered into the presence of President Mitterand by huissiers. They stay slightly more than an hour, discussing Marxism-Leninism, youth, and society with the ever-inconsistent, sometimes brilliant, sometimes crooked, sometimes socialist and sometime fascist president. Years later, one of them, Jean-Claude Cambalebis remembers the three questions Mitterand advised him to deal with if he wanted to “avoid becoming Minister of Public Works”.

They were as follows: the first, he said, was Poland, or more specifically that spiritual power had defeated political power there. The second was the way Britain would never be European and would always prefer to maintain ties with its favoured trading partners in the Commonwealth. For the third, Mitterand produced an electronic listening device (un puce electronique) from his pocket and remarked that such things would “turn the organisation of work upside-down”.

23 years down-range from that meeting with the UNEF executive committee at the Elysée Palace, and ten years on from Mitterand’s death, how do those part-predictions, part-suggestions stack up?

More in the geek hole..
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