Sarkozy: the French Thatcher?

Issue: 115

“Sarkozy, Brown, Merkel. Neoliberalism has its people in power in the main European countries and is free to proceed full speed ahead as it wishes.” That, in effect, is what the optimistic capitalist commentators are saying, and this view finds its mirror image among pessimists on the left. Sarkozy, they say, is now fully equipped to replicated what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain—to launch a full blooded assault on the last bastions of resistance to the neoliberal agenda. And all sorts of “theories” about what has happened to the working class and the wider movements are being formulated to explain in advance why he will succeed.

But things are not so simple. What Sarkozy wants to do and what he succeeds in doing are two different things. France has seen recurrent upsurges of resistance over the past 12 years. The most recent, just 14 months ago, left Sarkozy himself floundering. And, as Antoine Boulangé and Jim Wolfreys explain later in this journal, there is every possibility of that happening again. Four or five people in a hundred changing how they mark their ballot papers does not in itself transform society overnight. At most it alters the level of confidence among those who will fight the issues out on other terrains.

The Thatcher example, which is repeated over and over again, forgets some basic facts about her government. She did not simply wave a wand and see resistance disappear. She did win in the end—but only at the cost of seeing a miners’ strike, which she provoked in the expectation it would last just a few weeks, drag on for 12 months, at considerable cost to British capitalism (sterling fell to its lowest value ever—of one dollar to the pound). She herself was in despair on more than one occasion, and through much of the strike a majority of her cabinet would have settled on terms favourable to the miners if she had given them the chance. Her eventual victory resulted from a mixture of luck (a relatively mild winter which left coal stocks at the power stations intact), of important union leaders fearing a miners’ victory as much as a victory by the Tories (as coal boss McGregor explained in his memoirs), and of the weakness of the left forces trying to build real, active solidarity with the strikers.

It was, as one her naval commanders said of her Falkland-Malvinas War, “a close run thing”. And the wounds the government suffered in that struggle opened up schisms that led to her eventual fall as some of her closest allies turned against her—first Michael Heseltine, then Geoffrey Howe and finally Nigel Lawson.

If Sarkozy really wants to emulate Thatcher he will have to take the same risks she took—and with no certainty of success. The outcome will depend, in part, on how the French left, and those who influence their mood outside France, react. There is a great deal of despondency over the election result. The danger is that, as often happened in the Thatcher years in Britain, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Bar room talk of “semi-fascism” and academic discourses about “authoritarian populism” encouraged sections of the left to abandon the field of battle, with even as eminent a historian as Eric Hobsbawm telling us there was no possibility of defeating the poll tax by mass struggle.

The situation in France today is not comparable to that in Britain in 1984, when the record was already one of seven or eight years of defeats. Not all of France’s movements of the past dozen years have been successful. But there have been notable victories, and the forces that fought back are still intact. The point is to see the attack which is going to come and to prepare to fight it.

It is worth recalling that just four years ago the axis which was meant to push through a frontal attack on any resistance across Europe was that of Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar. Now all three have gone, unable to make the major breakthrough about which they were so confident. It is also worth recalling the expectation just two years ago that Merkel was the answer to European capitalism’s prayers. She is still with us, but no longer the toast of the neoliberal hardliners, as she runs a weak government faced with wage claims from workers wanting to take advantage of a limited economic upturn to restore their earnings.

To rephrase an old saying—don’t moan, organise.