PARIS (Reuters) – As a young aide to then-French prime minister Lionel Jospin in the late 1990s, Manuel Valls sat in on meetings as Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder tried to persuade his boss to help them reinvent Europe’s Left.
Jospin, who at the time was readying the 35-hour work week long dreamed of by French Socialists, was impressed neither by Blair’s “Third Way” nor Schroeder’s “New Centre”. But the talks made a deep mark on Valls, who 16 years later has become premier himself.
“Valls got it,” said Denis MacShane, a former British Europe minister and Blair ally who during that period struck up a lasting acquaintance with Valls.
“But he also knew that if you stuck your neck out as a reformer, the French Socialist Party had a very well-oiled guillotine at the ready.”
Valls, who makes no secret of his presidential ambitions, has now put his neck firmly on the line. He told the change-resistant Socialist Party last week that it must reform or die, and even toyed in public with the idea of changing its name.
Moreover he took aim at hallowed articles of Socialist faith, suggesting France‘s lengthy unemployment benefits and protective labour contracts could be revamped — echoing the type of reforms already long accepted by German and British leftists.
It all comes at a watershed moment, both for the party and for France. The Socialists are in power for the first time in a decade, and the rest of Europe is increasingly alarmed that, after two years in the Elysee Palace, Francois Hollande and his allies have done little to revive the region’s second largest economy.
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