Tony Blair and the next French president

8th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

Both of the current frontrunners, the left's Segolene Royal and the right's Nicolas Sarkozy, have flirted with Blair-like policies and both have clearly taken a lesson from the UK premier in media-management. But Daisy Ayliffe explains why neither can afford to get too close to what the French call 'Blairisme'.

What lessons does Tony Blair have for France?

If you're about to start campaigning for president of France in the fall of 2006, one of the last people you'd want to be compared to is the UK's prime minister, Tony Blair.

And yet both of the current frontrunners, the Socialist's Ségolène Royal and the UMP's Nicolas Sarkzoy, have been charged by critics of flirting with Blair-inspired policies and both have certainly taken a page from Blair's media-management handbook.

Now they too must fight for the moderate voter in the middle while demonstrating that their own definitions of a 'Third Way' are based on a uniquely French model. 

'Blairisme' can safely be described as one of the dirty words of French politics.  "For the French, Blairism means liberalism and the right," Isabelle Mandraud, a political journalist at Le Monde explains. "It means privatisation and the end of the social pact."

The French fear that under a Blairite model, workers would suffer wage cuts, wave goodbye to the unions and bid farewell to their social services. "The French social model is very much about working together in an old-fashioned socialist sense," Isabelle Mandrau said. "And furthermore, the French are adamant that their system is best."

Ghosts of past elections

In the last French presidential election in 2002, the left vote splintered into so many pieces that the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, lost in the first round of voting. This left the electorate to choose between the upholder of the Gaullist tradition, Jacque Chirac, and far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. 

*quote1*The election was widely seen as an embarrassment for France on the international stage and a worse-of-two-evils choice for many French voters.

So the challenge for both the Socialist and the UMP in the upcoming French presidential election is to win the middle, the moderate voter alienated by both the hard-core Left and the Front National. Immigration policy and the unemployment rate are the keys to this voter's loyalty.

"The socialist candidate [Royal] has picked up on the themes dear to Nicolas Sarkozy – the value of work, individual responsibility and the rewards of working hard," Le Figaro noted. "But she has repainted them pink so as to make them appear more progressive."

Earlier in Blair's mandate, his left-of-centre formula for economic revival, the touted 'Third Way', was briefly fashionable among French Socialists. As for the Labour Party in the UK, the left in France must come up with a solution that cuts unemployment, creates jobs and pledges loyalty to social protections all at the same time.

"To some extent of course [Royal] has been influenced by Blair," Isabelle Mandraud concedes. "But not on everything. Ségolène has said that Blair has done good things. She has praised him for dynamising British youth and she says his policies have been good for public services. But the praise stops there."

The French rejection of the European constitution last spring, in a campaign that united the far left and the far right, made it clear that the moderate French voter will not tolerate creeping 'libéralisme', a political philosophy that Blair has now come to represent on this side of the Channel. The Socialist Party leadership had not only endorsed a Yes vote on the constitution but had put all its weight behind it.

At the same time, the Socialists must be careful in not alienating the far-left or risk a repetition of the 2002 election.

The 'Non' vote put the right on notice too as Jacques Chirac had also campaigned actively for the opposite outcome.

Afterwards he responded by too reaffirmed his commitment to the existing French model: "We need a national effort within the framework of the French social model…not the Anglo-Saxon model," he declared from the Elysée Palace in the aftermath of rejection.

Ghost of Mitterand

*quote2*Across the political spectrum, the average French voter thinks France's basic problem lies not in its social model, which protects workers' rights and boasts one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

Rather they argue that the trouble lies with a creeping, insidious globalisation that endangers jobs and the agricultural sector.

Vincent Chatal is a French expatriate who moved to London last year, partly to take advantage of Britain's more flexible labour markets. He agrees that many of his compatriots regard Blair's ‘libéralisme sauvage' as a threat to their way of life.

"I think the French see Blairism as a threat to French culture which has always been more social," he commented. "Some French socialists accept Blairism could provide a way forward but the vast majority are wary. Most people on the French left see that Blairism deceives its social voting-base."

Little wonder then Ségolène Royal has distanced herself from the British premier while still speaking openly of the need to modernise the Socialist programme.

But instead of citing Blair, she has taken pains to represent herself as the political heir to François Mitterrand.
Blair rose to power in Britain by banishing the word "socialism" from the New Labour lexicon, Royal hopes to become the first female French president by embracing it.

"I claim the political heritage of François Mitterand and I am proud of it," she told crowds in a landmark speech in Burgundy in August. For the French Mitterand's 14 years in power is proof that the left can succeed in contemporary France.
But Royal still must demonstrate that she has new economic ideas that will continue the assault on the jobless rate.

"We must not fear innovation," she also declared in Burgundy.
Foreign-policy ghosts

Ironically  its is the tough-talking interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy—the virtually certain candidate for the right's leading party, the UMP—who is most open in his admiration for Blair and his success in getting Britain booming again.

French analysts say Sarkozy is particularly taken with the Blairite predilection for spin. The presidential hopeful is even reported to have met Blair twice in June for advice on political campaigning.

 Like Blair, Sarkozy has surrounded himself with a close-knit group of smooth talking advisors, obsessed with image and presentation. But parallels between the two politicians run deeper than that.

Like the British premier, Sarkozy has worked hard to prove he is "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" and has not shied away from antagonizing trade unions, particularly over the country's beloved 35 hour week.

Nevertheless, while all this plays into Sarkozy's vaunted promise of "La Rupture", a Blairite foreign policy could prove too bitter a pill to swallow for even a hardened right-winger like Sarkozy.

"To the French Blairism also means a foreign policy that nobody could ever tolerate," Vincent Chatal continues. "It means the war in Iraq and the UK standing alongside the USA on Lebanon."

Ultimately, what both candidates can imitate openly, and without getting uncomfortably close to Blair's political legacy, is what is often termed in France 'Anglo-Saxon pragmatism'.

Sarkozy's ideological flexibility is one his chief virtues in the eyes of his backers. But even Royal's supporters say she has shown a readiness to implement reforms on the basis of their efficiency, regardless of their ideological background.

And so she gives Blair credit where credit is due – but nothing more.


Daisy Ayliffe started her career at BBC Westminster in 2002, an experience that whetted her appetite for a career in political journalism. She has reported and produced for a local BBC radio station, BBC Surrey, and covered politics for the Westminster news site,, as well as written for the Whitehall & Westminster World newspaper. As of summer 2005, she covers EU affairs for the website and Parliament Magazine.

September 2006

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Subject: French news, Tony Blair, Blairism, Ségolène Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy, French presidential election

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