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t’s a strange paradox that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy should be verbally repudiated in the UK just as her bitterest economic medicine is winning support in France. On 5 October the UK prime minister Theresa May delivered a speech that must have discomfited some of her party faithful. She criticised a society of privilege for the rich, defended the role of the state, which exists ‘to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot’, emphasised ‘workers’ rights’, praised taxation, ‘the price we pay for living in a civilised society’, lauded public services, especially education and health (their staff were given an ovation), and announced the relaunch of public spending on housing and transport. Even the suggestion of such a policy turnaround angered French right-wing essayist and journalist Nicolas Baverez. He condemned May’s ‘anti-liberal counter-revolution’ (1).
He needn’t worry: his hero, Thatcher, has posthumously won political asylum across the Channel, where a ragbag of neoliberal measures serve as a common programme for the French right. Victory is already predicted for conservative candidates next year, indicating the near universal desire to remove François Hollande, and also the state of disintegration in which he left his Socialist Party; that would be victory for conservative candidates who promise to increase the retirement age by two or three years, add four hours to the working week for no more pay, scrap inheritance tax but raise VAT (which hits the poor hardest), erode unemployment benefits, and abolish 300-500,000 civil service posts. In a country in which opinion poll results have replaced political debate, the fact that the first three measures are widely disapproved has gone almost unremarked (2).
But the most staggering thing is yet to come. Instead of mobilising against a Thatcherite purge that even British conservatives seem to have rejected, some voters on the left, generously covered by the media, are preparing to take part in the right’s primaries this month — risking enhancing the winning candidate’s legitimacy when he starts implementing his programme. In 2012 tactical voting led opponents of neoliberalism to vote for Hollande in the first round to ensure that Nicolas Sarkozy lost. We know the result of that: Hollande adopted the main policy positions of Sarkozy, and the Front National became France’s largest party. This time, again to defeat Sarkozy, it’s claimed that support should go to one of his former ministers, Alain Juppé, who was the architect of the French right’s shift to neoliberalism 30 years ago (3). Has it really become too much to expect people to reserve their energies for defending political ideas they actually believe in?
(1) ‘Le virage antilibéral de Theresa May’ (Theresa May’s anti-liberal shift), Le Figaro,Paris, 17 October 2016.
(2) 56% oppose ending the 35-hour week, 64% oppose increasing the retirement age and 67% scrapping inheritance tax (IFOP-Atlantico poll, 23 May 2016).
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.