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France's Tony Blair Takes Over

01/04/2014 10:44 BST | Updated 01/06/2014 10:59 BST

The new French prime minister Manuel Valls, has a fatal attraction. The European politicians he always talks about as the one he most admires is Tony Blair. Not the Blair of the Iraq war who remains a contested figure on the French and wider European democratic left but the Tony Blair Valls saw in action during his four years as one Lionel Jospin's closest aides when the French socialist prime minister won power in 1997, a month after Blair swept into office.

Valls spent a decade after the French socialists were swept away in 2002 asking the core question that few on the left in France have wanted to pose let alone answer: How does modern social democracy function in an era of global-individualisation when the classic 20th Century ideas and organisation of the left no longer have purchase.

Valls, like Nicolas Sarkozy, is an outsider. Valls was born in Barcelona in 1962 and only became a French citizen aged 20. He speaks Catalan, Spanish and Italian. He joins the new socialist Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago, who was born in Cadiz. Two of the most powerful politicians in France have personal backgrounds on the other side of the Pyrenees in contrast to the outgoing premier, Jean-Marc Ayrault who was a German teacher.

He is a tough machine politician with 35 years of Socialist Party in-fighting under his belt. In many ways he is the antithesis of Francois Hollande, the classic French énarque - a graduate from the elite Ecole national d'administration - from a conventional bourgeois family. Hollande's government is stuffed full of elite énarques but their new chief as prime minister studied history and while a fluent communicator makes no pretence to be a grand intellectual.

For Valls, the question he kept asking whenever we met in Paris or elsewhere in Europe was how did Blair keep winning elections? How does a left party not win a single term of office but stay in power like Willy Brandt's reformist social democrats after 1970 or the enduring Nordic social democratic governments. Valls saw quickly that the French socialist government after 1997 was going nowhere in comparison to the élan and innovation of the pre-Iraq war Blair administration.

The French Socialists have never won two consecutive parliamentary majorities. Mitterrand's 2-term 14 years as president disguised the fact that in 1986, 1991 and 1995 voters booted out Socialist ministers. So for Valls as he saw the same fate hit the 1997-2002 Jospin government Blair seemed a miracle worker in winning three elections in a row.

Valls was an acoloyte of Michel Rocard who recently wrote a long essay in the Nouvel Observateur on why modernised social democracy was the only way forward for the democratic left in France.

He has never made any secret of his view that without economic growth driven by the market not the state the left simply becomes a prisoner of vested interests in the statist sector of the economy and under permanent pressure from public sector trade unions to reflect reform that challenges their place.

Valls ticks many problematic boxes for the French left. He is a strong Atlantacist and supporter of Israel. He has taken part in the Bilderberg Group conferences which are a chin-wag meeting of pro-American, economically liberal politicians. Often depicted in sinister conspiratorial terms, the Bilderberg outings are actually quite dull but that Valls chose to accept an invitation still speaks volumes.

Valls as Interior Minister was tough on asylum seekers, on criminals of any sort, and on any attack on French secularism or laicité and has little time for multicultural communalism which favours separate communities in place of a unified French republican state.

So far so good for those who think a dose of tough centre-right reformism is just what the soggy, saggy French state and economy needs. But Valls is also a committed pro-European and has said tougher control by Brussels over national EU budgets is no bad thing if it forces governments to tax and spend intelligently.

That puts him firmly in the Berlin camp of how the EU should develop in a more integrated form and light-years away from British Euroscepticism or the Europhobia of Marine Le Pen's Front National or the windy anti-Brussels national eftism of Jean-Luc Mélanchon.

Hollande too is a reformist and his move to the pro-business and pro-market centre announced earlier this year after the early excitements of a 75% tax rate on high earners is now

The reforms France needs however are massive and require a revolutionary casting aside of vested interests and old thinking, Valls does not lack ambition but whether he will have the support in French parliament and in the Socialist Party remains the big unanswered question. If he doesn't, c'est la fin.

Denis MacShane is the former Europe minister, and writes regularly in French papers on international politics