The political landscape changed dramatically in Europe yesterday.
French voters comprehensively rejected the right-wing economic and social programs that have been implemented in France — and much of Europe — since the mid-1980s.
Newly elected president Francois Hollande received an overwhelming endorsement of his leadership with an absolute majority of socialist bloc members in the nation’s Legislative Assembly. Socialists also control the Senate and most regional governments.
The final result should have Hollande’s comrades in more than 315 of the 577 Assembly seats. They will not need the voting support of the Greens or other fringe parties.
The far right anti-immigration party Le Front National led by Marine Le Pen looks likely to gain its first seats in the Parliament since 1998. It may win three.
Support for Hollande’s program socialiste has consolidated since his win in the presidential ballot six weeks ago against Nicolas Sarkozy — comfortably but not overwhelmingly 51.6% to 48.4%. The newcomer has impressed with his controlled and dignified demeanour as he has met a succession of global leaders.
The focus inside France and beyond will now shift to his economic management in what is still an extremely fragile global environment. Great Britain switched from left to right in 2010 at the depths of the recession. France has just done the opposite.
The French appear to have the tide of economic history on their side. Of the six best-performed economies through the global crisis, four are now managed by interventionist left or centre-left parties. Australia is by far the best-managed economy with a lead over the rest of the world on virtually every indicator. The others are Switzerland, Belgium and Norway. If we count Singapore with its strong Keynesian economic program, that makes five out of six.
France’s economic progress will be compared closely with that of Great Britain, Germany and Italy — the other three European nations with more than 50 million people — all now managed by conservative governments.
This starts today with Hollande’s strategic appearance at the G20 conference in Mexico. Of all 20 government leaders he has the longest assured future as a member — with the exception of China, of course — and probably the strongest mandate from his people.
Optimism for the new government’s success is tempered with realism at the monumental challenges ahead and Gallic resignation at the proven inability of politicians to deliver on their promises.
Of those Hollande has made, the three most keenly anticipated are stimulus to encourage production and jobs, taxation changes to oblige wealthier citoyens to pay a fair share and reforms to banking and other regulations to encourage small businesses.
France’s future fortunes will not impact Australia directly. The two nations are not major defence or trading partners. France ranks 54th as a buyer of Australia’s exports — mostly coal, then a range of agricultural products. Australia ranks 23rd as a buyer of French products — notably medicinal products, wines and cosmetics.
One potential positive for Australia should France’s fortunes improve is tourism. The French find Australia fascinating, with regular TV programs showcasing the antipodean wonderland.
Bill Bryson’s book Down Under is a bestseller here. His hilarious accounts of les animaux les plus voraces et venimeux lose nothing in the translation. Even the French edition title — Nos voisins du dessous — is an enticement not implicit in the original: literally “Our neighbours down below”.
Australians visiting France currently outnumber the French travelling dessous two to one — despite France having three times the population.
This could change. Europeans love Australian landscapes — geographic and economic.
*Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist based in Nîmes, France.