Knife-edge

The success of centre-left reformers hangs in the balance

The centre-left is in retreat across Europe, but there are glimmers of hope. In Italy and France, our sister parties are in office. Prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Manuel Valls are tackling some of the countries’ most entrenched problems. Are they getting it right?

Renzi has had a meteoric rise to the top job, becoming Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, aged just 39. He gained a national profile as the charismatic and outspoken mayor of Florence. An ambitious political operator, he was asked to form a government in February 2014, two months into becoming the Democratic party’s national secretary – after effectively ousting sitting premier Enrico Letta.

Over his first 18 months in post, Renzi has embarked on a major programme of reform, changing first the electoral system before embarking on labour market reforms aimed at boosting job creation and securing a better deal from Italy’s creditors, and has a schools shake-up in his sights.

Opposition, from within and outside of his own party, is expected to grow stronger as Renzi seeks to advance this ambitious agenda, and his approval ratings have slid somewhat since the early days of his premiership. Whether or not Renzi manages to keep the public – and his party – on side, Italy tends to be the exception rather than the rule of European politics.

In France, the situation is different again. A month after Renzi took the helm in Italy, in March 2014 François Hollande appointed Valls prime minister following catastrophic defeats for the Socialist party in municipal elections. The up-and-coming interior minister, who had rallied behind Hollande’s candidacy after coming last in the first round of the Socialist party primary, was a much-needed change for a president who now has the worst approval ratings in the history of the fifth republic.

Together, Valls and Hollande have embraced an agenda of economic reform. Most recently, the prime minister announced his intention to tackle France’s labour code – which he described as ‘so complex that it has become inefficient’ – to create greater flexibility for employers and employees. He has been outflanked by Emmanuel Macron, investment banker turned minister of the economy, who riled the party’s base with remarks implying the 35-hour week should be revised. Valls has promised such a move is off limits, but knows that heavy-lifting is needed to get the economy back on track and make a dent in historically high unemployment – the cornerstone of Hollande’s many election promises.

The country’s most popular politician while interior minister, Valls’ stock has fallen, though he still outpolls Hollande as the public’s favoured Socialist candidate in the next presidential election, although he is a less popular choice than the president among party members. However, polls suggest that even the party’s greatest electoral asset will not be enough to get the Socialists into the second round, which would see a run-off between the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the chosen candidate of the centre-right Republicans – probably former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The fear for the French Socialists is that the legacy of one unpopular leader will be a toxic gift that keeps on giving.

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Felicity Slater is head of partnerships and events at the Fabian Society

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Photo: ilfattoquotidiano

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