French right salutes 'Le Blairisme' just right for

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The Independent Online
It was a speech with something for everyone but one which delighted, most of all, the beleaguered French centre-right. Tony Blair's speech to the National Assembly in Paris yesterday had gone through several drafts. The Prime Minister apparently wanted it to be a significant speech, not just a piece of rhetorical wall-paper.

His account of the Blairist "third way" was applauded, cheered and whooped by parliamentarians of the French right. It was received at best politely, and for long passages in silence, by the Socialist and Communist deputies. Mr Blair, speaking in convincing French, made something of an ideological faux pas at the beginning of his 35-minute speech with a joking reminiscence of his student days in Paris. When he worked in the French capital as a waiter 25 years ago, the Prime Minister recalled, he was supposed to put all his tips in a common pot. It was a couple of weeks before he realised that he was the only person doing so. "It was my first lesson in applied socialism".

There was thunderous applause from Gaullist and liberal deputies; a deafening and stony-faced silence on the left side of the hemicycle. Jokes about Socialism may be fine in Blairist New Britain but the ideal and the word - if not the practice - are

still treated with reverence on the French left. His appeal for the "re-founding" of the friendship between Britain and France was sincerely meant, according to someone who worked on the various drafts. Mr Blair called for the 90-year-old Entente Cordiale to be recreated as "une entente reelle, une entente profonde" (a real understanding, a deep understanding).

The specifics of what this might mean were a little thin. Mr Blair and the French Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, are to set up a joint task-force to study ways of helping small businesses. Mr Blair urged the rapid creation of a permanent French-British military rapid-deployment force. This is an interesting idea but has been under discussion in Paris and London for several years. On Europe, there were many words to satisfy the most pro-European French politicians.

Britain will be "prepared" to join the euro, "do not doubt that", when the "clear and unambiguous" economic facts made it economically sensible for Britain to join. Mr Blair called for more European integration to protect the environment and to fight crime and drugs. He also called for the reform of the EU to give it a stronger political dimension - "a political commitment to community" - which is also a French preoccupation.

But in a passage which might have fallen out of a Sun editorial, he rejected a "Europe of conformity" and any EU move to harmonise education, health personal taxes, culture and identity. Fortunately, no such EU proposals exist. But what turned into the most controversial section of the speech was the long, seemingly straightforward central passage defending New Labourism, Blairism and the "third way" between interventionist Socialism and free- market capitalism. There was little here that Mr Blairhad not said a hundred times before, in Britain.

Blairism was, he said, "an attempt to make realistic sense of the modern world. It is a world in which love of ideals is essential but addiction to ideology can be fatal ... there are no ideological preconditions, no pre-determined veto on means. What counts is what works ..."

These words brought cheers and wild applause from the centre-right deputies and silence from the Socialists, Greens and Communists who form the Jospin government.

Mr Blair and his speechwriters had perhaps forgotten the extent to which "Le Blairisme" has been made a weapon by the French right to assault the allegedly antediluvian French left. Mr Blair's words were a perfectly reasonable defence of New Labour:but in the French context, they were heard by both sides as an implied criticism of the Jospin administration. Mr Blair had the good sense - and the good French - to interject at this stage: "And the present [Socialist-led] French government is managing the economy very well."

He received a standing ovation from deputies of all political persuasions at the end.