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France’s and Italy’s New ‘Tony Blairs’: Third Way or No Way?

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Thanks in large part to his decision to participate in the war in Iraq, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a controversial figure in Europe. Yet, Blair’s legacy as a center-left reformer is alive and well in two of Europe’s ruling center-left forces, France’s Socialist Party (PS) and Italy’s Democratic Party (PD).

Both Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from the PD and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls of the PS bear strong similarities to the former leader of Britain’s “New” Labour Party. As Blair was when he took office, they are young–Valls is 52 and Renzi is just 39; they are centrists; and they have excellent communication skills that allow them to present themselves as harbingers of change.

Taking a Page Out of Prime Minister Blair’s Book

Renzi and Valls will have to take three pages out of Blair’s book if they want to replicate his electoral achievements: 

  1. They must wrest control of their parties from the old guard; 
  2. They must take control of the political agenda by giving it a centrist thrust (along the lines of Blair’s ‘Third Way’ between conservatism and social democracy); 
  3. They must take control of the political center, even at the cost of shedding votes on the left.  

Renzi is far ahead of Valls in all three respects. He has taken over the PD (via an open primary election which he won resoundingly) after a bitter fight against the party’s old guard. Since taking office in early 2014, he has shown a remarkable ability to dictate the terms of the political debate. While he became prime minister via an inner party coup rather than a general election, he sailed triumphantly through his first electoral test: the European Parliament elections of May 2014. The PD won a larger share of the votes than any other Italian party since the 1950s (41 percent), tapping into constituencies such as entrepreneurs and businessmen who all have a long tradition of contempt for the left.

However, none of Renzi’s achievements rest on firm ground. The main reason is Italy’s appalling financial predicament. The economy has performed abysmally since the 2008 to 2009 recession. Unemployment is over 12 percent, the labor market is overly protective of certain categories and overly unfair to others (particularly the young), the public sector is costly and ineffective and the judicial system byzantine and not entirely reliable. Renzi continues to face harsh criticisms from within his party as his reform agenda flies in the face of traditionally left-leaning constituencies (a few weeks ago the main leftist trade union managed to get about a million people to the streets in protest against a labor market reform bill). Finally, Renzi’s room for maneuver is severely constrained by the tight fiscal rules imposed by the European Union (EU).

For Valls, the path to leadership is a more complicated matter. This is largely due to France’s constitutional set-up, in which the prime minister runs domestic policies but is second in authority to the president. This involves for Valls a variation from Blair’s three-step process—as prime minister, his most urgent priority is not leading the PS but pushing forward a political agenda capable of winning over the political center. He was appointed to the premiership by the current president, the socialist François Hollande, because his previous stint as a tough-talking interior minister and his profile as a business-friendly politician and skillful local manager made him fairly popular with the public. Hollande’s decision was a desperate attempt to revive his own popularity, which has plummeted to unprecedented lows only half-way into his 5-year term, by imparting a new, essentially more pro-market direction to his presidency. Since he stepped in, Valls has tried to change the political agenda by advocating reduced labor costs and lower taxes on businesses.

Like Renzi, Valls is confronted with both internal and external challenges. The first is of course that, although in charge of domestic policies, he is still second-in-command to a highly unpopular president. Because he does not control the PS, Valls faces stiffer opposition to his centrist agenda from within the party than does his Italian counterpart. His calls for a ‘common house’ for reform-oriented leftists and rightists have, unsurprisingly, met with acerbic criticism in the PS. France is in a better economic state than Italy and the government machine is as efficient as ever; yet the French have shown an idiosyncratic resistance to reform which Valls might lack the political authority to overcome. And Valls, just like Renzi, must also make decisions that both help France and comply with EU fiscal rules.

What to Make of Continental Europe’s New Blairs?

In spite of the huge challenges Renzi faces both at home and in the EU, he seems to be the better positioned. Realistically, the chances that he will successfully revive Italy’s economy are slim. Yet Italians do not dream of an era of prosperity, but one of action. Provided Renzi can show that he has begun to tackle the many roadblocks on the path towards growth, Italians are likely to see him as a safer bet than the opposition, which consists of Silvio Berlusconi’s much weakened center-right party and the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.

Valls has a harder road ahead. His approval ratings now hover at just around 36 percent (though no other center-left French politician fares much better). He certainly has a popularity problem in his own party during the last presidential campaign, he won only 5.5 percent of the votes in a PS primary contest. Yet Valls also stood out as a credible politician and is now in a position to attract more support. He encapsulates the second half of Hollande’s presidential term, which has made a decision to openly target centrist voters. If Valls manages to regain, at least in part, the favor of the public, the PS might in the end see him as a more appealing presidential candidate in 2017 than Hollande, whose credibility is in poor shape.

Appearing to the public the safer bet is the mark of shrewd politicians. But strong leadership requires one step further. Blair mapped out a course towards prosperity in the much more competitive world of globalization; this, the Iraq war notwithstanding, secured him three electoral victories in a row. For Renzi and Valls, the time to do something alike cannot come soon enough.

Authors

Riccardo Alcaro

Former Brookings Expert

Senior Fellow - Istituto Affari Internazionali

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