To say of someone that he is among the best of parliamentarians sounds faint praise, but it's true of the former Europe minister Denis MacShane. He is a lucid advocate of the commensensical but, in British debate at least, rare notion that our interests are served by both the transatlantic alliance and European integration. He has in domestic politics some good enemies, including one, whom I have clashed with, who apparently regards donating money to the racist faker David Irving as "perhaps overly idealistic". Finally, MacShane is one of pitifully few figures in British public life who - gasp - speak French. (Among our European partners, the cause for comment is when a senior politician does not speak English. I recall a quarter of century ago there were misgivings in his own party about Helmut Kohl's ability to represent Germany on the international stage owing to his being a monoglot. He did it pretty well, though.)
MacShane has a thoughtful article in The Observer today about the French presidential election. He concludes:
Royal may still win if all the far left and Bayrou centrist votes come her way next Sunday. But she has disappointed many on the European left with her erratic foreign policy line, especially her embrace of anti-European politicians such as the Tony Benn of the French left, Jean-Pierre Chevenement. Just as Margaret Thatcher found a supporter when Argentina's junta invaded the Falklands in the socialist Mitterrand, Prime Minister Brown will find centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy a man he can do business with despite their adherence to opposing political families.
This is speculation, of course, about politicians whose views on foreign policy are in the first case opaque and in the second untested. But I suspect it's true. I have heard Sarkozy speak on foreign affairs, and he was well informed. Mme Royal's compulsion to harm herself with ill-judged statements on the outside world is alarming. I fear that as President she might emulate the pitiful populism of Gerhard Schroeder, the worst of all postwar German chancellors and a standing disgrace to the noble traditions of German social democracy. The analogy with Mrs Thatcher and President Mitterrand is, moreover, quite a promising one.
Mitterrand (who served in the Vichy regime) was in many respects a man of no fixed principles. There are, however, worse criticisms to make of a politician than this. It took ideological flexibility - to use a polite term for wholesale retreat - to abandon, in 1982, the Socialist promise of breaking the power of big capital and adopt instead an anti-inflationary plan de rigueur involving cuts in social security and redundancies in a bloated public sector. Much of the credit for this recognition of economic reality should go to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, the most important social democratic politician of his generation. At a Franco-German summit in July 1981 he had bluntly rejected a half-baked scheme for a coordinated reduction in interest rates to help the French Socialists. But the French Socialists did learn painfully that policymaking works best by promoting incremental reforms rather than by wishing the world were other than it is. France's progressive financial liberalisation from 1984 was an important impetus in the creation of the single European market - which in turn is a practical expression of the social democratic aim of enhancing workers' living standards.
In foreign affairs, moreover, Mitterrand was a reliable ally who made important interventions in European policy. In the early 1980s, the Labour Party adopted an intellectually disreputable and electorally suicidal policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, and the German SPD opposed Nato's deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles - even though the rationale for the deployment had been initially formulated, in an important speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in October 1977, by Helmut Schmidt. The euromissiles were a cause of the Left, which then extraordinarily turned against them. Mitterrand was having none of this oppositional politics. In the middle of the German general election campaign of 1983, he took the opportunity of a speech to the Bundestag, nominally to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Elysée Treaty of German-French cooperation, to defend Nato's position on intermediate-range nuclear forces. It was widely interpreted as, and cannot but have been, a tacit endorsement of Helmut Kohl's coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats.
The last Socialist President of France was, in short, an important figure in fashioning a coherent and reputable stance for European foreign policy on the most important issue of that time. He also knew who were his most reliable allies. (On a more parochial note, I recall attending a Fabian conference on defence policy in 1983, shortly after Labour's electoral humiliation, where one speaker who is now thought of as a moderate Labour MP declared that the French Socialists' position on defence was "disastrous". He was swiftly corrected by Bruce George MP, one of the few Labour MPs of that time to have a genuine interest in defence policy, who pointed to a certain disparity in electoral outcomes for the British and French Left as well.) If Mme Royal is elected, it is unlikely on present form - and I put it no higher than that - that France will play a serious role in international diplomacy or be of help rather than a hindrance to a British Labour PM.
NOTE: I wouldn't normally recommend even a glance at the reader comments appended to a piece on the "Comment is Free" site, but try the ones underneath MacShane's article. They are overwhelmingly crude, insular, ignorant, abusive and racist. As I'm cited correctly in this article, also in today's Observer, among those who criticise the Web's debasement of our culture, I could hardly want for a better example. (I should stress, however, that my views have nothing in common with those of another cited critic, the founder of Wikipedia, whose anti-intellectual venture I regard as emblematic of the wider problem.)
UPDATE: In the original version of this post I said Mitterrand had served in ministerial office in the Vichy regime. His precise involvement in the regime remains a murky business, but Mitterrand's role was more accurately a bureaucratic than a political one, so I have slightly altered this description. Almost at the end of Mitterrand's second presidential term and two years before his death, a biography by Pierre Péan, Une Jeunesse française: François Mitterrand, 1934-1947 (1994), revealed many aspects of this ignoble history. Marshal Pétain had even awarded Mitterrand the highest honour of the Vichy regime, l'ordre de la francisque.
UPDATE II: On the background to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's thinking on the euromissiles issue and the controversy it engendered in German politics, see Jeffrey Herf's excellent book War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance, and the Battle of the Euromissiles, 1991. Herf interviewed Schmidt in 1985, and quotes (p. 54) Schmidt's reasoning behind his IISS speech:
I was fed up with [Zbigniew] Brzezinski and [President Jimmy] Carter who had told me that the Russian SS-20 [intermediate-range missiles] did not matter at all... they didn't understand that the SS-20 was a political threat, political blackmail against Germany most of all and later on against others in Europe.... In the course of 1977, Carter talked a lot of nonsense about deep cuts.... I told him [such an approach] would fail.
It is an extraordinary fact, as I noted in this brief article last summer, that President Carter is these days seen as some sort of elder statesman and an authority on peacemaking. When they were in office, Schmidt far more accurately diagnosed that Carter was “just not big enough for the game”. Given that it was Schmidt's insistence during the Cold War that Nato restore equilibrium in weapons systems at all levels in the European theatre, and that this approach of negotiation from strength demonstrably did produce pacific results, it is plain that entirely the wrong man was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a quarter-century later.