The fate of the French Socialists is a warning for Boris Johnson

21 January 2022

7:11 PM

21 January 2022

7:11 PM

The defection of Christian Wakeford to Labour has put a spring in the step of the left-wing party. Apparently it marks the start of their revival. Give it two years and Keir Starmer will be waving from the steps of Number 10.

That’s one scenario. A more likely one is that the good people of Bury South will unseat Wakeford at the next general election as Labour suffer another humiliating defeat.

What so many in the Westminster bubble don’t get is that for the average voter in Bury, Basildon or Blyth Valley, ‘partygate’ is not top of their grievances with Boris Johnson. It’s often immigration, tax rises and the nonsense of net zero. The PM has it within his grasp to launch a spectacular revival of his own if he admits he got it wrong with what David Cameron described as ‘this green crap’. Johnson, and Keir Starmer, should look to France as a warning of what happens when a political party ignores its base.

Three years ago, I wrote that the Socialist party ‘no longer exists as a coherent political force in France’. The 2022 presidential election campaign has borne that out. Frankly, it’s becoming embarrassing for the Socialists. Anne Hidalgo is polling at three per cent and the announcement that Christiane Taubira, a former minister in François Hollande’s government, will stand as another left-wing candidate has not set the left alight either. Small wonder. For many working-class voters she embodies the smug progressive wing of the party, which caused them to abandon the Socialists when she was Minister of Justice.

It’s hard to credit, given the state of the Socialist party today, that ten years ago Hollande was elected president. In truth, he won by default, so unpopular was the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, but Hollande didn’t grasp that point. Rather he believed the report published by a left-wing think tank, Terra Nova, in 2011 that declared,

‘The France of tomorrow is above all united by cultural and progressive values. It wants change. It is tolerant, open, optimistic and inclusive…it is opposed to an electorate that defends the present and the past against change.’

So that’s what Hollande gave the voters, spearheaded by Taubira, who was instrumental in driving through the controversial Same Sex Marriage Bill that brought hundreds and thousands of protesters onto the streets. She eventually resigned from the government in 2016 over Hollande’s proposal to strip French nationality from dual-citizens convicted of terrorism. Her departure worked in the short-term in that it helped her parliamentary allies to block the bill, but it reinforced the message among the electorate that this was a Socialist party more interested in appeasing Islamists than defeating them.

Now Taubira has returned to the fray, riding to the rescue of the Socialist cause, or so she dreams. The reality is bitter. A poll earlier this week had her on four per cent, one more than the hapless Hidalgo. At this rate the Socialist party won’t pass the five per cent threshold needed to recoup its campaign expenses. Between them the six candidates from the left – Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Fabien Roussel, Arnaud Montebourg, Anne Hidalgo, Christiane Taubira and Yannick Jadot – total just 26 per cent of voting intentions. Emmanuel Macron has 24 per cent and the lacklustre Marine Le Pen is able to muster 18.

The outlook is so bleak that Montebourg, a minister in Hollande’s government, has now withdrawn his candidature.

There was last month a symbolic moment for French Socialists with the passing of the professor and essayist Laurent Bouvet at the age of 53. Credited with helping to popularise the phrase ‘cultural insecurity’, Bouvet was an old-school Socialist who championed Republican laïcité and was one of the first on the left to warn that espousing identity politics would be ruinous. For his intellectual honesty, Bouvet was demonised by many Socialist activists, who accused him of ‘doing the National Front’s work’ and of being ‘Zemmourised’.

The Socialists are now paying the price for ignoring Bouvet’s warning. In the latest issue of Revue des deux Mondes, the venerable current affairs magazine reflected that the death of Bouvet ‘comes at the same moment as the left, ailed by its denials and betrayals, is poised to register its worst score in the history of presidential elections.’

Emmanuel Macron served in Hollande’s calamitous government before breaking away to launch En Marche! in 2016. He styled himself a centrist but ideologically he still leaned to the left on social issues. In the last three years, however, he has stepped sharply to the right.

The Yellow Vest uprising of 2018, the catalyst for which was the imposition of a green fuel tax, shook Macron, as did the spate of brutal Islamist attacks in 2020. It was instructive to note that last weekend Zineb El Rhazoui, a former columnist for Charlie Hebdo, endorsed Macron for a second term because she admires the way he has confronted what she describes as ‘Islamic fascism’. Less supportive is Yannick Jadot, the Green MEP and presidential candidate, who took advantage of Macron’s presence in the European Parliament this week to accuse him of being the ‘president of climate inaction’.

Macron will not have been bothered by the charge. Ever the pragmatist, he understands that while progressive policies may go down well in the posher parts of Paris, in the provinces they are deeply unpopular because they impoverish people. ‘They talk about the end of the world and we are talking about the end of the month,’ became the unofficial slogan of the Yellow Vest movement.

The defection of Christian Wakeford isn’t the start of a Labour revival. He and his new friends on the backbenches can wear as many Union Flag face masks as they like but they won’t fool the working-class nor make them forget Labour’s position on Brexit.

Their votes will go to the party which ditches the ‘green crap’, does something about illegal immigration and pushes back the progressives. It’s why they voted for Johnson in 2019; it’s why they are so angry now. Hell hath no fury like a voter scorned. And don’t the French Socialists know it.

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