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Politics

Philippe Marlière: “It would be suicidal for the Left to import Blairism in France”

Translated Friday 13 July 2007, by Jonathan Pierrel

In 1998, Tony Blair declared before French deputies: “There is no right or left politics in economic management today, but economic policies which work and other which don’t work.” ... "It is amusing to hear some elements in the French media talking about a ’socially-sensitive Blair’ whereas he has actually re-used Thatcher’s neoliberal recipes and promoted the interests of the advocates of the financial capitalism."

HUMA: When French media summed up Blair’s legacy during the last few days, they talked about pragmatism, social Thatcherism, modernism, social-democracy… What do you think about it?

MARLIÈRE (1) : In 1998, Tony Blair declared before French deputies: “There is no right or left politics in economic management today, but economic policies which work and other which don’t work.” He introduced his so-called politic modernism and his willingness to break away from “Old Labour.” This strong emphasis on pragmatism gave way to more ideological choices. In fact, Blairism stayed on Thatcherism’s tracks while rectifying a few things for the poorest and single-parent families. He set a security net for these categories but did not reduce inequalities which, on the other hand, greatly increased. He did not break apart with Thatcher’s paradigm concerning public services. Renovating schools and hospitals was done with a close link with the private sector which helped build and run them.

Blair and Brown’s choice to go along and not to regulate globalisation transformed London and the United Kingdom into the hub of an unregulated economy, completely "open", where only the richest can stay above ground. An example: stock-market speculation drives the middle-classes out of town centres.

Hidden behind this pragmatism, Blair imposed policies which were rejected not only by the unions but also by many members of the Labour Party, the media and also by the public. Renovating the London Underground led to a long battle against a public service run by the private sector. The mayor, Ken Livingstone, was opposed to this privatization but Blair and Brown pûshed it through, showing that their pragmatism was a mere slogan.

HUMA: Was Tony Blair a social democrat?

In France, on the Left and especially on the Left of the Socialist Party, this term is assimilated with the Right. It is a short-cut. During the thirty-year boom period after World War II, the social democrats were not particularly on the Right, Great Britain included. Their agenda consisted of a policies geared towards equal redistribution of the wealth. This is not the policy that Blair adopted. With him, workers, civil servants and the middle-class of the private sector have been left out.

It is amusing to hear some elements in the French media talking about a ’socially-sensitive Blair’ whereas he has actually re-used Thatcher’s neoliberal recipes and promoted the interests of the advocates of the financial capitalism. No, he has done less than what was necessary. After twenty years with an ultra-liberal government, after Thatcher’s disastrous privatizations, the people wqere fed up with neo-liberalism and they wanted a real renovation of the public services and more equality. They did not expect a revolution but a more social democrat policy. Blairism was not able to face the task. Blair lacked a daring touch whereas he was supported by an absolute majority. What characterized his policies was a deep social pessimism.

HUMA: Does Tony Blair come from the left wing?

MARLIÈRE: After heading a government from the left or even centrist or post-social-democrat, on what grounds can his success be judged? At the dawn of a fight in favour of social justice. Blair failed in this field. The rich prospered under Blairism. Other social categories struggled a lot. In Great Britain, the middle classes are having a hard time, which led to Blairism’s unpopularity among manual workers and white-collar workers.

HUMA: So it is not only the Iraq war which is the reason for Blair’s relative unpopularity today …

MARLIÈRE: From a British point of view the Iraq war is only part of the reason for this unpopularity. It was a huge fiasco. Everyone admits it except Tony Blair. It turned off whole categories of people who were initially supporters of Blair. For those who are called bobos in France; well-off people who do not want tax rises and put their children in public schools, but who are progressivist regarding society, environment and public morality, Iraq was really the last straw for them.

To those who say in France that Blair did relatively well except in Iraq, I say: Blair failed in Iraq and he also failed in social and economic fields. Macroeconomic results may be correct but to who did the growth profit? The rich, not the people.

HUMA: Ségolène Royal and Dominique Strauss-Kahn referred to Tony Blair at several occasions. Is there an attraction towards Blairism within the French Socialist Party?

MARLIÈRE: The French Socialist Party and all parties represented in Brussels within the European Socialist Party are undeniably attracted to it. There are those who think Blair did what was best. You quoted Royal and Dominique Strauss-Kahn - I agree. But there are still some socialists who think Blairism has nothing to do with the social democratic Left, that he is now on the right and he must be fought. Strauss-Kahn carefully studied Blairism, he has close contacts with its dignitaries. He thinks that French socialism should be inspired by it; that is his target, it is ideological. Royal’s campaign can be said to have been Blairite. She even went beyond this when she criticised the 35-hour week and the minimum wage (incredible! - even Blair raised the minimum wage.) She also adopted some of Blair’s system of "flexibility". I think that in a world where there are huge socio-economic uncertainties, where the lower classes suffer from restructuring, relocations, reduced purchasing power, a left-wing government should protect these categories of the population and not reinforce neoliberal deregulation as Blair did by saying: consider yourself lucky to have a job, even a low paid and flexible one.

Today, the major political opposition is no longer between the left and the right. It is an opposition which crosses social democrat parties and which opposes Blairites and progressivists.

HUMA: Nicolas Sarkozy also showed his close relation with Tony Blair…

MARLIÈRE: It is actually logical that Nicolas Sarkozy refers to Blair on economic matters, approves of his security policies and shares his admiration towards the United-States. It is a known fact. Between the two men, there is an admiration and mutual sympathy. Blair’s policies and Sarkozy’s intentions coincide.

HUMA: What lessons can be taught to the French Left about Blairism?

MARLIÈRE: Blair was able to be elected easily because of the special political situations, after twenty years of Thatcherism and of defeat of the British Left even at the base; from the miner’s strike until Neil Kinnock brought the Labour party back on the scene. He had prepared the ground by getting rid of figures from the Left of the Labour Party; not only TrotskYites but staunch social democrats who have been gradually pushed aside within a decade. The way the party was run became more often based on a plebiscite and it made the leader more powerful.

When Blair became leader in 1994, he just had to to apply his policies. This is an important point. Then, he came into power. Meanwhile, the Conservatives faced a visceral rejection and there was a great call from the people for a change. Despite the failures of the last years, despite everything the Left and especially the Socialist Party are blamed for, France remains culturally, ideologically a lot further to the Left than Great Britain. The argument that there is a general movement of the French society towards the right has not been proven. On the contrary, all qualitative surveys show that there are a strong expectations for social policies. That is all the genius of Sarkozy’s strategy of wooing the Left voters during his campaign to favour a neoliberal hub. It enabled him to win an election which the Left should have enables him to win. It would be suicidal for the Left to import Blairism and its social pessimism in France, to promote a policy which would discourage what on the contrary should be encouraged: a desire for more solidarity and social justice.


Translator’s Note:

Philippe Marliere is a senior lecturer in French politics at University College, London. He has been awarded the Marcel Liebman Chair in political science by the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) for 2007 ...


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