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Commentary: How Europe’s left lost the working class

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Commentary: How Europe’s left lost the working class

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi addresses the media in Rome after losing a referendum on constitutional reform, December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

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Commentary: How Europe’s left lost the working class

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French President Francois Hollande, seen here at the Elysee Palace in Paris, is not planning to run for a second term in office. December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Lionel Bonaventure/Pool

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By John Lloyd

If parties of the left cannot appeal to the working class, what's their use? The 21st century may be the one in which the umbilical link between the main left parties and organized labor is broken in favor of a politics of identity, and a grasping after some form of direct democracy that translates desires and frustrations into instant policies. Lurking over this movement is the fear of such an unsustainable politics producing authoritarian leaders, especially if the economies of the Western states worsen.

This past week saw two leaders of the European left - Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy and President Francois Hollande of France - forced to admit defeat and to leave the political scene, their reputations and policies shredded, their parties embarrassed by their very presence. In Italy, Renzi announced his resignation after losing a referendum on constitutional reform. In France, Hollande bowed to his nation’s unchanging contempt and announced that he would not seek the presidency for a second time - an unprecedented move in post-World War Two France. He did have some success - job creation recently picked up  - but he had fallen into too deep a chasm for rescue by the time a 50,000-plus increase was announced in October.

Hollande, who came in on a rhetorically leftist platform of “hating the rich” was forced to discreetly drop plans to raise their taxes to a marginal rate of 75 percent on annual incomes of more than 1 million euro ($1,075 million). It was French actor Gerard Depardieu who called Hollande’s bluff most dramatically - by moving across the border into Belgium. Depardieu remains a working class hero. The president who tried to take money from the few rich to give to the many poor has been mocked from office.

The French president's flip-flop from angry socialist to emollient centrist while the economy stagnated and unemployment rose was a terrible posture to take. He put icing on this sad cake with the revelation that he had insulted a series of friends and allies during discussions with two journalists during the period of his presidency, an act of self indulgent narcissism only possible in one who had lost his bearings. Now, Prime Minister Manuel Valls will be the main leftist contender for the Élysée Palace, seeking to convince voters that his brand of pragmatic, growth- and business-oriented policies will woo the French away from the two present front-runners, National Front leader Marine Le Pen on the far-right and the Republican Francois Fillon on the center-right. Polls presently show Valls with little chance of surviving the first round. That may change, but he will have to claw away from his former boss's legacy.

It won't be easy. Both Valls and Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old former economy minister who resigned from the Hollande cabinet in August to run as an independent presidential candidate, are strongly and openly pro-business: so, too, was Hollande, once he had dropped his leftist posture, and his attempts at labor reforms lost him much support among union members who might be tempted by the National Front's wooing of the working class vote. Valls and Macron prefer to speak of freedom rather than job security, seeing their mission as "unblocking France," as Valls has put it, releasing what they believe are the pent-up, over-regulated entrepreneurial classes.

They follow a line laid down by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the two most successful center-left leaders of recent times. Blair was convinced of the need to accept globalization, and of its inevitability."The forces shaping the world," the former UK prime minister said in a 2008 speech, "are so strong and all tend in one direction. They are opening the world up." Both Blair and Clinton believed globalization was good for the workers; as for a while it was. Ironically, the center-left strategy known as a "third way" between old style socialism and free market capitalism had most success in Germany, where it was adopted by the Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Schroeder strengthened German's already formidable industrial base, though at the cost of fewer secure jobs and for some workers, lower pay.

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