Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Success for Hollande could change the terms of the debate

Piece for Shifting Grounds blog

Francois Holland - IDF FOTOS

It’s fair to say that the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has not been kind to the left. A favourite talking point of those writing obituaries for social democracy is that right-of-centre governments have come to dominate the continent, holding power in 22 of 27 EU countries. So as the French presidential election reaches its crescendo this week, the prospect of an Hollande presidency could prove a decisive moment in recent history.

For one thing, if Hollande makes it to the Elysee he will have been propelled there by a revival of the far left. The Left Front, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, has assumed a place and importance in this election that must seem a distant dream to their UK counterparts. Working as a coherent counter-veiling force to Sarkozy and Le Pen, they have dragged the debate leftwards and re-connected with working class voters long since thought lost to apathy or worse, the Front National. Here we should at least allow ourselves optimism at what the broad left can achieve with a few charismatic or competent leaders, and with Pythonesque splits and sectarianism left in the past. (Not losing sight of the shared enemy, Melenchon has long urged his voters to transfer to Hollande in the second round.)

But we kid ourselves if we think what we are seeing in itself represents a ‘uniform swing’ to the left acrossEurope. The French system is distinct, and the left there work on far more fertile territory than in other states: France’s political discourse (if not electoral history) traditionally leans their way. What is of more importance is if Hollande both wins and is able to implement his policy platform in the face of vested interests.

The austerity economics of the past few years has brought into focus a phenomenon that’s defined the past three decades – that is, economic policy (and debate) largely framed by the prevailing wisdom among financial elites. The most potent embodiment of this in recent times has been the almighty position assumed by the international bond markets. Although treated as neutral, these have demanded a highly prescriptive form of right-wing economics in exchange for low interest rates – with particular focus on deep spending cuts and tax rises (on all but the rich) as the best means to reduce debt, deficits and increase growth. Any alternative is deemed ‘unworkable’ or ‘unrealistic’ at best, and haunted by the threat of punishment. This trumping of sovereign governments of whatever stripe, mostly derived from unchecked de-regulation and globalisation, forms part of what Zygmunt Bauman has called a ‘disconnect between power and politics’.

Hollande at least poses a challenge to this order. His manifesto proposes deficit reduction via stimulus and growth, and represents the first coherent alternative to austerity inEuropesince the collapse of Lehmans. It promises to boost state spending by €20 billion over 5 years, create 60,000 new teaching posts, fund new jobs for the young unemployed and invest in social housing. Alongside this is a new 75% tax on incomes over €1 million, taxes on banks and financial transactions, a ban on stock options and the promise of significant banking reform. Significantly, Hollande has also pledged to re-negotiate the EU fiscal treaty to give greater emphasis to growth over cuts, and to push for a more active role for the ECB.

While this is by no means revolutionary, it is far outside what is deemed acceptable in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Sensing the threat, Hollande’s opponents at home and abroad have begun the scaremongering that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the economic debate in the UK. Openly inviting speculation, Sarkozy has said the Hollande’s plan will turn France into a ‘new Greece’, while transnational financial ‘leaders’ have been summoned to warn of a ‘bloodbath’ in the markets – a ‘new wave of instability’ – should voters vote the wrong way, or Hollande have the cheek to act on his mandate. Echoing this, The Economist – which has long viewed the belligerence of France’s social model as a sort of childish impudence defying ‘inevitable’ liberalisation – has spent much time fretting that candidates ‘may actually mean what they say’! Deep spending cuts are presented as unavoidable, and a country whose underlying economic position is sound has suddenly been talked up to be on the brink of collapse.

Whether Hollande, if victorious, can face down such threats and intimidation and push ahead with his programme will tell us a great deal about politics in 2012. It will give us a clear picture of where the balance of power really lies between markets and democracy, and the real scope for change. If he avoids Mitterrand’s fate, and France emerges unscathed, he may help break the hoodoo that market reprisal has thus far held over Europe’s centre-left parties and their electorate, particularly in the UK. If no ‘bloodbath’ is forthcoming, and austerity’s ‘leading lights’ are exposed to have cried wolf over the French Socialists, then centre-left parties will have the beacon of a bold, workable alternative at the heart of Europe.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Hollande will stay the course – he is, ultimately, a pragmatist – nor that he will successfully pursue his argument at an EU level. So far, though, he has shown no signs of back-tracking. No doubt the resurgence of the far left, whose presence at least partially accounts for the scale of Hollande’s manifesto, helps to explain this – and should they remain united, they may yet have a key role to play in holding his feet to the fire.

Either way, the stakes are huge. Mark Fisher has defined the ‘No Alternative’ fatalism that has underpinned the neo-liberal era as ‘capitalist realism’. In his seminal book on the subject, he writes:

"The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility."

Francois Hollande is no messiah, and his platform is no panacea, but it may yet prove to be that tear in the curtain that social democracy has so long been waiting for.