France is captivated by 'le Blairisme'

Britain's right-wing 'socialist' is intriguing the French media, says John Lichfield
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This Is the real English miracle, wrote Le Figaro. Not the recovery of the economy; not the remarkable fall in unemployment. It is the emergence of a British socialist who is further to the right than the French right.

Despite the fact that France is having an election of its own, the French media has been much possessed by Tony Blair and le Blairisme. On Thursday the high-minded Franco-German TV channel, Arte, showed a one-hour documentary on the British campaign. The show was dominated by the Labour leader, who gave a short interview in French, in which he recalled his student days working in Paris as a barman and for the French insurance company, GAN.

"A nice boy," said a French acquaintance, after viewing the film. "Intelligent. Speaks well. Too many teeth." And what about his French? "Pas mal," she said, diplomatically. When it comes to British politicians speaking in their language, the French take Samuel Johnson's line: it is remarkable, not because it is done well, but because it is done at all.

Newspaper coverage of the UK election has been comprehensive and good. Le Figaro examined Manchester as a paradigm of the Tory years, describing a booming city centre but also a Moss Side sunk in unemployment and drug- dealing.

This has been the drift of much French coverage. There is admiration for the economic vigour of the Thatcher-Major years, but also a determination to point out the holes in the social fabric. "The United Kingdom is not the Eden envied by the world which John Major daily boasts of," said Le Figaro. "But it is no longer the sickly country, condemned to irretrievable decline, which was inherited by Margaret Thatcher in 1979."

The right wing French press - and right-wing French politicians - have had much fun teasing their Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, for not being Mr Blair. But even Liberation has compared the Jospin electoral programme unfavourably to Labour's.

The French Socialists turned to the centre long before Labour, Laurent Joffrin, the paper's editorial director, pointed out: they did so in power during the Mitterrand years. Mr Jospin should not now slavishly copy the Blair model, he said. But he must, like Mr Blair, avoid the old Socialist religion of state intervention, which lacks "invention,imagination and intellectual rigour".