Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is quite an enigma. If he, as many anticipate, wins the internal election to become Labour leader, the perplexing MP from Islington North will be the newest in a series of far-left leaders rising to the top of his party in Europe. Already in Greece and Spain, Syriza and Podemos have electrified the traditional center-left while other similarly hard-left leaders make inroads in other European countries. To be fair, this is not quite a pandemic in Europe. Germany’s left has been essentially decimated by Angela Merkel’s steady and effective rule. Similarly, Matteo Renzi’s pragmatic style of centrist rule has galvanized Italy’s left around him.
One country where this issue does stand out is France. In 2011, during the socialist primary campaign, François Hollande painted himself both as a left-wing ideologue and as a consensus building figure. Two ideas which, at the outset, appear mutually exclusive. In governance, this paradox has proven almost untenable. Those on the far left who were seduced by Hollande’s promise to take on the world of finance (his sworn enemy) and tax the wealthy with intention of redistributing, feel profoundly betrayed. Similarly, those in the center who saw the appeal of a Hollande presidency must look at the current state of affairs with much disappointment. Indeed, instead of unifying the left, Hollande has managed to split it into two “currents”: one driven by the charismatic and openly Clintonian Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and the other by the effusive Don Quixote of the hard left, Arnaud Montebourg.
This piece in the Financial Times interestingly compares Mr. Montebourg to Mr. Corbyn. While that comparison is certainly interesting, I find the odds of a similar leftward lurch unlikely in France. While Montebourg may be a romantic choice for many seeking to return to a system of government redistribution, many in the socialist party recognize that this line is not only impractical, but it has also contributed to an electoral erosion for the socialists. What’s more, the base of voters looking for a fringe candidate is would be widely split between Montebourg and the rising National Front.
If anything, I think the biggest opportunity for the French based on the election of Jeremy Corbyn is for the right. By moving to the center, they could take up the votes of many disaffected socialists, leaving the remaining left-wing base to split itself between Montebourg and Valls. For the socialists, however, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory might prove to be a problem in the short run. However my sense is that his eventual implosion will be proof enough that this romantic left is indeed not a viable alternative to sensible, centrist governance.