The Presidential election in France to be held on 22 April with a further round on 5 May, if necessary, matters hugely to the rest of Europe. Were Francois Hollande to win, there would be one significant voice at the top table in Europe opposed to the current centre-right imposition of continent-wide austerity as the sole solution to the economic crisis. France would provide an alternative policy, and a humane one to boot, which is lacking at present.
Chancellor Merkel has astutely realised the importance of the French election from her point of view, and has already announced that she will campaign for her fellow conservative, Nicolas Sarkozy. Rather sensibly David Cameron, I suspect, realises that his support for M Sarkozy would be a vote loser rather than a winner.
The same does not apply to Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership team. Ed going to France to campaign for Francois Hollande could be combined with a real effort to secure the votes of the 300,000 French nationals living in the UK for M Hollande. Such bold moves would go a long way towards signalling a new era of European co-operation between parties on the centre-left. It may also lead to the emergence of a European centre-left agenda for jobs and growth.
The 60 proposals put forward by Holland in France represent a radical departure from 10 years of conservative government in that country. Hollande is committed to renegotiating the “fiscal pact”. While not rejecting budgetary discipline, the French socialists do not accept austerity without accompanying measures for growth.
What is more, Francois Hollande was selected as the Socialist Presidential candidate by three million socialists in an open primary, the first time such an experiment has been tried in France. This was not some internal political party stitch-up but a democratic election, and as such deserves recognition.
There is also the growing problem of the Front National in France. Its new leader, Marine le Pen, is a more formidable opponent than her openly racist and xenophobic father Jean-Marie. Although she objects to the term “far right”, make no mistake – that is exactly what she is.
It is a matter of huge concern that Le Pen’s opinion poll ratings have been going up, reaching the levels of those of President Nicolas Sarkozy. She even came top in one poll while another said that one in two of those questioned saw the Front National as “a party like the others”.
According to the BBC, commentator Agnes Poirier thinks Mme Le Pen may well “do better than her father in [the presidential elections of] April 2002, that is to say she is very likely to be present at the second round [of voting] and therefore likely to knock Nicolas Sarkozy out of the race… of the elections.”
Despite her softer image, Marine le Pen is the mirror image of her father. The Front National remains a hard, ultra-right party. During a speech in December 2010, Marine le Pen called the regular blocking of public streets for Muslim prayers in French cities an “occupation of parts of the territory”. Marine Le Pen now senses a political opportunity for “a more moderately presented, more middle class, more gently smiling form of extremism, rather than a snarling form of extremism”.
Campaigning in the French Presidential elections would provide Ed Miliband with the opportunity to stand up against racism and the far-right as well as supporting an economic policy with the interests of the people of Europe at its heart. The French campaign to choose their President matters more to us than that in the United States. The Labour leadership has the opportunity to make a bold stand which also has the merit of being the right thing to do.