A French strike at the heart of Blairism

`The two leaders are in a contest to become the very model of modern, European, leftish leadership for the new century'
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BATTLE IS about to be joined between two of the would-be great political "-isms" of the coming century: Jospinism is about to take on Blairism. The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, will make the key-note speech to the International Socialist congress in Paris in early November. The event has already been billed in Paris as Jospin's response to, and rebuttal of, Mr Blair's Third Way.

Labour Party conference please note: Mr Jospin will make - his people are already making - the cheeky and provocative claim to have been, at once, more successful and more socialist than New Labour in the last two years. More socialist? Mr Jospin, like Mr Blair, accepts that the old statist religion is dead. He is in enormous trouble with his own left wing and Communist allies at present for daring to admit that an "administered economy" (his phrase) is no longer tenable or desirable. None the less, the Jospinists claim that, far more than New Labour, they believe in a creative and protective role for the modern state to soften the sometimes brutal effects of markets. Exhibit A is their experiment with a shorter working week.

More successful? The figures seem to speak for themselves. Actual and projected French growth since Jospin came to power in June 1997 until the end of this year is around 8 per cent; British growth over the first 30 months of Blair's rule - covering almost exactly the same period - looks likely to be just under 4 per cent. French unemployment remains high but is falling rapidly for the first time in 20 years. France is now creating as many jobs, proportionally, as the United States.

Such a double claim - both lefter and more prosperous than thou - strikes at the heart of Blairism. Is is justified?

The two prime ministers are friends but not truly pals. They are, ex- officiis, rivals. Elected within a month of one another in 1997 - the first, simultaneous left-of-centre leaders in Paris and London for nearly 50 years - they are inescapably in a contest to become the very model of modern, European, leftish leadership for the new century.

The other contestant for the title, Gerhard Schroder, is floundering. The German Chancellor threw in his lot with New Labour in a joint Anglo- German statement on 9 June, mocking European social democratic, interventionist traditions and calling for a smaller state, more open world trade and less "rigid" employment laws (ie fewer protections for the employed). Three months later, the Chancellor's attempts to slim the German state have run into dire electoral trouble; he has had to distance himself from Blairism without seeming to have any clear idea (as yet) of what Schroderism might be.

Mr Jospin was deeply irritated by the Blair-Schroder statement. That is one reason why he feels the need to define Jospinism more closely this autumn. There are also pressing domestic reasons. Jospin's reputation in France - though high - is defined by his nick-name, "Yo-Yo": a man who will roll this way or that, whichever seems to work best at the time. Before the presidential elections of 2002, French political traditions require that Jospin stands for something; and something more than Blairism with a better French accent than Mr Blair's.

In recent days, beginning with a speech at the Socialist Party summer school in late August, continuing with an interview on France 2 television, Mr Jospin has been attempting to define "Jospinisme"clearly for the first time. It has not been going well. Jospin heads a restive Socialist, radical Communist and Green coalition. He has to put out red, pink or green flags which please all his allies, and occasionally he puts out the wrong flag.

In his speech to the Socialist Party, the French Prime Minister made a startling promise - full employment within a decade. He sketched a rather Blairist vision of what leftism means in the new millennium: preserving the old values of "solidarity, justice, and liberty" but accepting that the old socialist obsessions - such as redistributive taxes and state ownership - are dead letters. Finally, he outlined a political strategy: the creation of a "new alliance", uniting the working class, the middle class and the "exclus" (ie the unemployed, the poor and the under-educated).

Much of this overlaps with New Labour, but Jospin's supporters say that there is a core difference. Jospin rejected the Blair-Schroder document - mostly written by Peter Mandelson - because he thought it went too far towards the American social model. It was not so much an attack on the have-nots of society but a threat to dissolve the employment certainties and welfare privileges of the have-just-enoughs. Jospin knew that such a head-on approach would be electorally suicidal in France, as it has proved in Germany.

The problem is that what Jospin says, and what France and the Jospin government do, are not always the same. France has already moved stealthily away from some of the state-approved rigidities which Mr Blair attacks, and Mr Jospin appears to defend. One of the reasons France has been more successful in creating jobs in recent months is that it is generating far more short-term and part-time work in service and high-tech industries. The employees do not receive the generous benefits, and guarantees, which go with full-time employment in France: but they do get jobs. On hearing of these alien practices, the employment minister, Martine Aubry - as Vieux Labour as you can get - threatened to punish the industries concerned with new taxes. Mr Jospin dismissed her idea as "unhelpful".

When Michelin announced two weeks ago that it was sacking 7,500 people, despite record profits, Mr Jospin said that he was "shocked". In his TV interview, he urged the unions to protest. However, he said his government would do nothing because it could do nothing. The days of French government intervention in markets and business were over, he said. He dismissed talk of a new law to make job losses subject to state approval (as they were until 1986).

His comments have provoked howls of protest from his Communist allies but also from senior figures in his own Socialist party. For once, the normally light-footed Mr Jospin had been caught out. The discrepancy between his socialist rhetoric and cautious, pragmatic rule had been exposed on prime-time TV.

Jospin will recover. On past form, his policies will not change but his public arguments will. He now has all the more reason to claim to be be more socialist and successful than Mr Blair this autumn. In truth, this is Tweedledum assaulting Tweedledee. In terms of what the two leaders do, rather than what they say, the differences are minimal. Jospin talks to the left but acts to the centre. Blair talks to centre and acts, mostly to the centre. Both men have held down spending and modestly reduced taxes. Both have invested in education and job creation programmes for the young. Jospin has increased the minimum wage; Blair has created one. Blair has made no attempt to undo Conservative privatisations; Jospin has privatised more rapidly (and more stealthily) than his centre-right predecessors.

The clearest discrepancy is the Jospin government's experiment with a shorter working week (35 hours instead of 39). The jury is still out on that one: it has created fewer jobs than Mr Jospin, and Ms Aubry predicted. It has not been the economic disaster that British, and French, liberals forecast. The success of the French economy under Jospin is undeniable. Largely, in truth, it is a cyclical recovery. Jospin certainly did not make it, but he has taken the trouble not to break it.

Jospinism may be marginally more socialist but its true qualities are pragmatism and evasiveness in the service of a fundamental honesty and common-sense. In terms of recent French political history, that may be just as radical as Blairism claims to be.

Which "-ism" will prevail? Jospin's more cautious, more veiled approach - one part ideology, two parts tactics - is far better suited to the messy coalition politics of continental Europe. As Gerhard Schroder, and now Jospin himself, have found out, the full-frontal homilies of Blairism do not export or translate well.

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