French left goes in search of a new ideology

Like Blair's Labour, the Socialists have moved right
Paris - It is nearly half a century since Britain and France drove together, politically speaking, on the left side of the road. The last time Paris and London both had Socialist leaders was in 1951 (President Vincent Auriol and Prime Minister Clement Attlee).

Over the next five weeks, it is just possible that left-leaning governments will be elected at both ends of the Channel tunnel. (Near simultaneous, neighbouring elections are also unusual: 1974 was the last time it happened.)

The coincidence of polls may be of no consequence to Tony Blair: but it is proving an embarrassment to the French Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin. Mr Jospin, 59, has been suffering unhelpful, and often unfair, comparisons with Mr Blair for months. They have become thick and fast since the snap French parliamentary election was announced by President Jacques Chirac on Monday.

"It seems to me that the British Labour party has had its cultural revolution, but not the French Socialists," said the former centre-right prime minister, Edouard Balladur. "Mr Jospin is still talking, and thinking, in the outdated concepts of state intervention which failed in the early 1980s."

There is some truth in this. Mr Jospin, after a good performance and honourable defeat in the 1995 presidential election, has failed to give the French Socialists a new post-Mitterrand mission or gloss. But British- French comparisons are also misleading.

Mr Blair's task was to bury the image of a statist, welfarist Labour Party, controlled by unions and special interests. Mr Jospin's problem is, in a sense, the opposite.

The French Socialists emerged from the scandals and U-turns of the Mitterrand years with no visible ideology at all. They had already become centrist, not by design but by drift.

Mr Jospin and his colleagues criticise the failings of the state-shrinking reforms undertaken since President Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe came to power two years ago. But similar projects had been attempted half-heartedly under Socialist governments in the 1980s.

Should the Socialists turn left again, as the radical wing of the party demands? Or try to claim the centre, by painting the Juppe government as skidding to the right? So far, Mr Jospin has tried to do both: presenting himself as the kinder, gentler alternative to a painful set of reforms which he does not dare wholly to repudiate.

His answer to high unemployment is a mixture of make-work public spending programmes and mandatory cuts in working hours: a throw-back to 1970s socialist dogma which was condemned as empty rhetoric by both left and right-wing commentators when first floated six weeks ago.

But his principal difficulty is with the European single currency. Mr Jospin is in favour of monetary union. How could he not be? Two of its Godfathers - Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors - are the most notable French Socialist figures of the last 50 years.

But, under pressure from his own left, and from his potential Communist allies, Mr Jospin has moved in the first days of the campaign into a politically, and logically, tenuous position.

He says he is in favour of EMU, but not if it means further, agonising cuts in French public spending. One of the party's chief economic spokesmen, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has called into question the need to meet the Maastricht guideline of a budget deficit of no more than 3 per cent of gross national product this year. This figure was based on an "unfounded dogma", he said, and could be renegotiated if necessary.

Although strictly speaking true, Mr Strauss-Kahn's comments betray an ignorance - or disregard - of the political and market realities. At this stage, any such attempt to tamper with the rules of the EMU game would bring the whole project crashing down. In Britain, to support EMU is to be accused of unpatriotic betrayal. In France, EMU remains broadly popular. To seem to jeopardise the single currency is to court accusations of betraying the longer-term economic future of the country.

Having little coherent to defend, Mr Jospin and his colleagues have decided to attack. They plan to make the election they did not want a referendum on the personal popularity of the man who engineered it - the Prime Minister, Mr Juppe, still one of the most disliked politicians in France. They accuse Mr Juppe of wanting to lead France down the Thatcher-Reagan road to heartless economic liberalism.

More riskily, they have begun to make an electoral issue of sleaze - specifically the many and tangled, financial scandals bubbling away within the governing centre-right parties.

The problem with this approach is that similar, financial scandals involving Socialist and allied politicians in the Mitterrand years are still fresh in the minds of the public.

Although aggression can buy them a few days, it is clear that the early election has caught the Socialists, the main opposition party, in logistical and ideological confusion.

This was precisely what Mr Juppe, had intended when he persuaded President Chirac to call the election nine months early. Being able to compare Mr Jospin to the ideologically-speaking, well-behaved boy next door is a useful bonus.