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Social democrats' big idea in the balance

Paul Anderson charts the warning signals in the rise of Le Pen and the populist anti-immigrant right.

April 21 2002 has to go down as one of the darkest days for European social democracy in the past 50 years. For Lionel Jospin to fail to reach the second round of the French presidential election would have been a disaster in any circumstances. For him to be beaten by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen was utterly shocking, the most profound defeat for the left in democratic Europe since 1945.

What went wrong? Jospin's government - despite notable successes such as the 35-hour week - was not popular, and Jospin himself was not the most inspiring of candidates. He also ran a dismal campaign. The opinion polls nevertheless suggested that he would coast into the second round, and many left-wing voters decided to use the first round of the presidential election to protest against the deficiencies of the government by backing one of the fringe left candidates or the Greens - a self-indulgence that most regretted as soon as the exit polls were broadcast. Add the chord that Le Pen's dominant themes of crime and immigration struck with many voters, and the die was cast for the debacle that ensued.

Of course, president Jacques Chirac won in the second round of the presidential election on May 5 - and it is possible that the left, shocked out of its complacency by its failure on April 21, will do well enough in the National Assembly elections in June to win another majority. Perhaps, by early summer, France will be back to the status quo ante, with a left coalition government cohabiting with Chirac as president.

But such an outcome. by no means guaranteed, would not wipe out the disaster of April 21 - and even this, the most optimistic current scenario, is a far cry from what seemed achievable when the polls opened on April 21. There seemed then a real chance that Jospin would win a victory that would massively strengthen the position of social democracy in the European Union after the general election defeats of ruling socialist parties in Austria, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal in the past three years.

As it is, the prognosis for the west European centre-left is gloomier than at any time for a decade. Social democrats are still in power in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Sweden and of course the United Kingdom. But in the Netherlands, which holds its general election in May, the Labour-dominated coalition government has resigned ahead over the damning report on the role of Dutch troops during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre - and the running in the election campaign is being made by a populist anti-immigrant right-winger.

In Germany, which holds a general election in autumn, the alarm bells are ringing for chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The same day as Jospin crashed to defeat in France the German Social Democrats slumped to an unexpectedly ignominious defeat in the regional election in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt - almost unreported in the British press. The SPD haemorrhaged support to the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, the liberal Free Democrats and the centre-right Christian Democratic Union. The spectre looms of a return to the centre-right coalition that ruled the Federal Republic from 1983 to 1998.

Why is social democracy in this predicament? One way of answering this question is to go through the particular circumstances of each country - the perception in Spain that the Socialists were corrupt and had run out of steam, the failure of the Italian centre-left to push through much-needed economic and political reforms, the hopelessly schismatic nature of the French left, the economic plight of former East Germany, and so on.

But there are also factors that are common across western Europe. At the most general level, there has been a catastrophic erosion almost everywhere of the ability of the major left and centre-left parties to retain the loyalty of what were once their core voters, particularly the working class. (The most remarkable instance is not a social democratic party but the once-mighty French Communist Party, which 30 years ago easily scooped up one-fifth of the vote in a general election. Its presidential candidate on April 21, Robert Hue, won a derisory 3.5 per cent.)

This is partly down to changes in society and mass culture that have been remarked upon for the best part of 50 years - the rise of consumerism and the (increasingly tax-averse) affluent white-collar worker who identifies with the middle class, deindustrialisation and the fragmentation of working-class communities, the decline of political activity in parties and so forth. But it also has a lot to do with the inability of left and centre-left parties, in the face of all this and globalisation too, to articulate a coherent reformist programme that appeals to the self-interest of the poor without frightening away the relatively well off.

Ever since the end of Francois Mitterrand's early-eighties French experiment in nationalisation and Keynesian reflation, the nearest thing that the left has had to a credible defining grand project has been the construction of a "social Europe". The big idea, articulated by Jacques Delors and others, was an over-arching plan for not just economic but political union, with the introduction of basic workers' rights throughout a new democratic, federalist European Union alongside the introduction of an expansionist counter-cyclical Europe-wide economic policy based on a single European currency.

But, with the right in government in nearly all the major EC states in the late 1980s and early 1990s - and with federalism anathema to the French and British governments - the deal that was struck on creating the European Union at Maastricht and subsequently was far from the social democrats' dream. The leading figures in several social democratic parties, most notably the British, responded by capitulating to what the French call "neo-liberalism", the doctrine that only a hire-and-fire work culture, backed up with punitive measures against the supposedly work-shy, could possibly work in the new globalised economy.

Instead of what would effectively have been a democratically accountable European government pursuing a redistributionist growth-oriented policy, the EU got a single currency run by an independent central bank committed only to anti-inflationary rigour. When social democrats came to power in the late 1990s in Italy, France and then Germany, the three biggest countries then in the putative euro-zone, they found their room for manoeuvre in the short term seriously constrained by the imperative of sticking to the timetable for monetary union. Their supporters' high expectations were dashed.

The fact is that western Europe's social democratic governments missed a great opportunity in 1998-99 to put together a far-reaching revision of the EU's political and economic settlement along the lines originally envisaged by Delors. That they didn't is easily explicable. The advocates of such a course (the Jospin government and Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance minister) were unceremoniously blocked by their opponents (the Labour government in Britain and Schroeder, but also the Italian centre-left), who believed that what Europe needed was a large dose of deregulation, privatisation and flexible labour markets. Just as important, no consensus emerged either on the political shape a democratically reformed EU should take; and, in its absence, the EU focused its efforts on the challenge of enlargement - the implications of which for public opinion inside the EU were never taken seriously.

It is here that the failure of the centre-left to come up with a coherent purpose locks into another common theme of west European politics in the past five years: the rise of a populist anti-immigrant right. Of course, antipathy to immigrants in western Europe long predates any plan to expand the single labour market to the low-wage zones of east-central Europe, and there is much more to it than fears of wages being driven down and of secure jobs disappearing.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the imminence of enlargement has been one of the factors - along with the growth in the number of asylum-seekers and in illegal immigration that have accompanied the de facto decision of affluent western Europe to stop legal immigration - that have given the anti-immigrant right momentum.

The desire of large numbers of people in poor and war-torn parts of the world to come to relatively peaceful, affluent western Europe is completely understandable. So too, however, are at least some of the fears of immigration that are exploited by Le Pen, Haider and their ilk. It would be utterly reprehensible to condone the racism of the populist anti-immigrant right or to abandon the practice of offering asylum to the persecuted. But there are good reasons for adopting policies - with the emphasis on the carrot not the stick - that both persuade would-be economic immigrants to western Europe to stay put in their own countries and reassure west European workers that their jobs, wages and pensions are not going to be sacrificed on the altar of market economics.

The arguments bandied about by the Labour government in the past few weeks - that immigration is good for the economy and that we're really hard on asylum seekers - send precisely the wrong message. This one demands the generosity and foresight of the Marshall plan - a radical reorientation of western policy towards rebuilding the shattered economies of the former-communist and third worlds.

May/June 2002