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Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Blair's new French friends

Almost exactly five years ago, in the first flush of New Labourdom, a newly elected Tony Blair came to Paris to meet his newly elected counterpart Lionel Jospin.

It was a chance for the two leaders to congratulate each other on their successes, and look with satisfaction at the pinkish tide then spreading over the map of the European Union.

It was the conservative opposition that applauded Tony Blair in Paris with heartfelt gusto

This was also the occasion when Mr Blair became the first British prime minister to address the National Assembly and wowed them with his command of French.

Less reported at the time was the response of the 577 deputies to Mr Blair's lengthy expose on the "Third Way."

The Right's approval

For while the new Socialist-Communist-Green majority either sat in stony silence or clapped politely when not to have done so would have seemed an affront - it was the conservative opposition that applauded with heartfelt gusto.

I remember interviewing one member of President Jacques Chirac's RPR party at the time, who said he couldn't disagree with a single word Mr Blair had said.

Economic growth as the path to social justice; an end to the notion that the state knows best; recognition of the market as an essential force in human affairs; labour flexibility as the motor for job creation.

Lionel Jospin, former French Prime Minister
Blair was unlikely to praise some of Jospin's moves
All these Blairist tenets were policies which the French centre-right would give their eye-teeth to have the chance to carry out.

Well, five years on and France's centre-right, newly elected in Sunday's elections, has got its chance. Mr Blair is back, and this time - I fancy - his reception will be even warmer than in 1997.

For the truth is that - labels apart - the British government will feel it has far more in common with the incoming administration in Paris than it ever had with the last one.

'No longer France-firsters'

For a start, Socialism French-style is a long, long way from whatever it is Mr Blair represents.

Mr Blair and Mr Jospin may have stood shoulder to shoulder at international Socialist gatherings, but can you imagine New Labour imposing a 35-hour working week, or passing legislation to limit the rights of companies to restructure by shedding staff?

And then the French Right is itself no longer the stamping-ground of red-faced Anglo-Saxon-bashing France-firsters that it once was.

Tony Blair (right) with Jacques Chirac
A new axis could be now formed
The new intake into the National Assembly takes its lead from the Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin - liberal-minded, pro-European, pragmatic about the reality of globalisation.

In my experience French politicians on the Left tend to be far more sniffy towards Blairism than those on the Right.

I remember Martine Aubry - the architect of the 35-hour week - poo-pooing Britain's better record against unemployment by saying that what had been created there were "petits boulots".

That insulting term was in fact far better applied to the armies of demotivated youngsters given non-jobs in her own youth employment scheme.

Sangatte changes

The centre-right asks why it is so many French businesses are setting up in Kent, and why tens of thousands of French high-fliers prefer London to Paris - and draws the necessary conclusions.

On the key issue of immigration too it is clear that the UK Government has already found a more responsive interlocutor since Mr Jospin's team left power five weeks ago.

Incredibly, not a single Socialist minister ever visited the Sangatte camp. Mr Blunkett's new opposite number Nicolas Sarkozy - a keen student of English by the way - was there within two weeks.

The British government's key alliance in Europe has for the last five years been with Spain, where a conservative government led by Jose-Maria Aznar preaches the same kind of liberalising agenda.

With the new French government, it could find its alliance turning into an axis.

See also:

17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
23 May 02 | Europe
24 May 02 | Europe
17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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