Jeremy Corbyn divides French Left

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The election this month of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party has been greeted variously with both delight and despair among the French Left. While Socialist Party bigwigs look on aghast at the election of what a minister described to Mediapart as “an archaic dinosaur”, one of its minority leftist rebel MPs called the event “a breath of fresh air”. Lénaïg Bredoux has been seeking out the reactions.

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Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader of the British Labour Party, and as such leader of the opposition, has been met with wide and enthusiastic approval from the leftist rebels of the French Socialist Party, but also from the radical-left Front de Gauche coalition, and even among a number of Greens, many of whom were gathered at the yearly Fête de l’Humanité weekend festival when Corbyn was elected on September 12th. “The wheel of history has begun to turn,” announced Communist Party leader Pierre Laurent, speaking before huge crowds at the event in the Paris suburb of La Corneuve. Every time Corbyn’s name was mentioned it prompted enthusiastic clapping.

“You’re right to applaud Corbyn, each time a swallow turns up, you must believe it announces the spring,” said leading radical-left figure and MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon, co-founder of the Parti de Gauche, addressing a lively audience for the presentation of ‘A plan B in Europe’. With him was the festival’s guest star, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis who, proclaimed: “Corbyn is a spark of hope, a small candle amid the obscurity of austerity.”

There was no great surprise in the reactions. Corbyn, the opposite of Tony Blair, is a champion of the Labour leftists, who is anti-austerity, a defender of public services who wants to up taxes on the rich, who is opposed to war and who wants to Britain to abandon nuclear weapons and leave NATO. He was elected Labour leader with 59.5% of the votes cast by 600,000 party members - compared to the 70,000 votes cast for the election earlier this year of the French Socialist Party leader, which saw the re-election of Jean-Christophe Cambadélis.

Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader: victory speech in full © Channel 4 News

At the Socialist Party headquarters on the rue Solférino in central Paris on Monday, the victory of Corbyn, who was little-known among party members until now, was the last subject of discussion on the agenda of its national bureau. While the leftists in the party are overjoyed, the majority, who support Prime Minister Manuel Valls and President François Hollande, are either politely cautious or openly hostile to the British leftist.

The Socialist Party’s European affairs officer, Member of Parliament (MP) Philip Cordery, wrote the official statement of the party in reaction to Corbyn’s win. This spoke of an “exemplary democratic exercise” which Cordery said allowed “the Labour party to reconstruct itself and propose a clear Left alternative in Great Britain”.

“The French socialists have the wish that, with this new team, relations between Labour and the [French] Socialist Party, which were reinforced during the Ed Miliband era, continue to deepen in order to strengthen European social-democracy.”

Corbyn’s surprise victory is a reversal of roles for the French Socialist Party. Prior to the election of Hollande and his parliamentary majority in 2012, the last time it was in government was between 1997 and 2002. Then-prime minister Lionel Jospin took on the role of guarantor of true socialism in face of the “third way” adopted by his British and German counterparts of the Left, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. Now, back in power, the French socialists appear on a constant slide into policies that they earlier opposed.

Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair et Jacques Chirac le 19 juin 2000 © Reuters Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair et Jacques Chirac le 19 juin 2000 © Reuters

Since his election as president, Hollande has regularly paid tribute to Schröder, and has compared his ‘responsibility pact’ of tax breaks for business in return for job creations with Schröder’s social and economic reforms. The pact is in essence an affirmation that the cost of labour is the key factor for French economic competitiveness. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has made clear his closeness to French business, regularly calling upon the socialists to break with the past in favour of “modernity”, and taking up the theory of ‘pre-distribution’ that found favour with Blair’s political heirs.

French socialist MP Laurent Baumel is an experienced observer of the Blair years, having served as an advisor to the European affairs ministry in Lionel Jospin’s 1997-2002 government. Today he is one of the Socialist Party’s leftist rebels, the so-called frondeurs.

 “During the triumphant Blairist period, it was the French Socialist Party that took up the fight in face of the ‘third way’,” said Baumel. “Fifteen years later, it’s the French [socialist] government that appears to be [walking] in the steps of Blairism. Valls has adopted the same phraseology, and his positioning is close.”

“Corbyn’s victory should be a lesson for us. Today, Valls clearly takes his inspiration from Blair, both in the way of communicating by talking of ‘emancipation from dogmas’ or ‘breaking taboos’, and in the fundamentals. Like Blair, he has an authoritarian vision of society and calls for deregulation and flexibility.”

Fabien Escalona is a professor with the Grenoble School of political Sciences, specialised in European social democrat movements. “While under [former socialist prime minister and one-time party leader Lionel] Jospin the Socialist Party could have been taken for a village of Gaul, this time the Socialist Party is in the dominating group,” he said. “In Germany, in Sweden, in Austria, in Italy, the parties remain aligned to the austerity/Brussels’ structural reform approach. Today, among the social democrat family, Labour is quite alone.”

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