Thatcher’s legacy – is it still relevant?

Despite the fact I’m obviously not French, I couldn’t resist the temptation to vote in Le Figaro’s online poll asking whether or not a Margaret Thatcher like leader would be desirable for France.

I didn’t put a huge amount of thought into my response (perfectly demonstrating why we should never trust the supposed ‘authority’ of political polls), but I voted with the legacy of Thatcher that I’ve had inculcated into me. I was never taught to think of Thatcher as a great leader. I was taught to respect her achievements,but to err on the side of caution when praising her; to think about what she did to the welfare state and how she crushed the trade unions, and made the lives of miners miserable.

In short, I voted no. When it came to seeing the results I was stunned to see that 69% of participants had voted yes, versus 30% who had voted no.

Ok, Le Figaro is a right wing newspaper. But it was an interesting demonstration of the current state of affairs in France. When Cameron introduced his intention to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU by 2017 if he wins the next general election in 2015, the French press widely seemed to be of the opinion that it was a catastrophically unwise move on his part, and a clear attempt to protect the City’s interests and appease Euro-sceptic members of his party. Many of the comments on the articles online were along the lines of ‘Can the British just get stuffed, and stop bossing everyone about.’ Historically, France has a pro-European political policy – it was one of the founding members of the European Economic Committee in 1957, and Thatcher was famously Euro-sceptic and pro national, rather than European interest. Many think her economic policy pre-figured the City as it is today, and in my last blog post I talked about one of the views from France of the City.

So why today do 69% of Le Figaro readers think a Margaret Thatcher figure would be a good thing for France? In times of crisis, we look to a strong leader.  The French have a history of doing so – during the 1958 crisis during the Algerian war of independence, de Gaulle was voted back into power after having retired from politics. He was the epitome of monarchical figure, an undisputed leader, a reformer, and very pro-dirigiste. He took France’s suffering economy and, rebuilt it through state directed capitalism. Under de Gaulle, France enjoyed Les Trente Glorieuses¸ 30 years of economic growth, where the French GDP overtook that of the UK’s until the early 90s.

Today, many feel that Hollande is not a strong leader, and that France is losing it way politically, as well as stumbling economically. His current approval ratings are on 27%, which is the lowest any President has ever had under the 5th Republic.

This poll should obviously be taken with a liberal pinch of salt, but the fact remains that a year after electing a Socialist President, the massive coverage of Thatcher’s death in the French press suggests more than just a passing interest in her policies and her legacy.  Thatcher once said that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ At a time when France is vulnerable, economically and politically, it’s interesting that that Thatcher should hold allure. She didn’t unite, she divided. Some flourished under her, some really suffered. True, she was omni-present, seemingly omnipotent, in a de Gaulle like fashion, but then that’s also the kind of leadership that Marine Le Pen espouses, and she got 17,90% in the last French election.

Hollande is trying to emit authority and capability. Part of his reaction to the Cahuzac scandal has been to introduce new laws stripping anyone suspected of or actually having committed tax evasion from public office. He has also asked all MPs to make public the details of their ‘patrimoine,’ that is to say, their personal estate. But this move has been quickly dismissed by the right as an attempt to ease the blame on the left by making the whole of the political system seem guilty.

Yesterday, Hollande blandly acknowledged that Thatcher profoundly marked British history.  Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French prime-minister’s response was more unfettered, making reference to the economic and social damage that she inflicted. Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: ‘Margaret Thatcher will discover in hell what it is she did to the miners.’ (No mincing of words there then).  There are no overt demonstrations of emotion from the left, but all the same, perhaps they should be wary of her legacy when it comes to creating their own.

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