Argument

The Gauche Cadaver and the Socialist Tea Party

The Gauche Cadaver and the Socialist Tea Party

French President François Hollande visited Ile de Sein, a tiny, rocky, and windswept island off the Breton coast, on Aug. 25 to mark the 70th anniversary of France’s liberation from Nazi occupation. Ile de Sein was a fitting choice: All of the island’s men, upon hearing Charles de Gaulle’s BBC address on June 18, 1940, declaring that France had lost a battle, but not the war, clambered onto their trawlers and sailed to England to join the Free French Forces.

Hollande no doubt felt as alone that day as de Gaulle did in London more than 70 years ago. As he was speaking on a rain-lashed field — his glasses fogged over and water dripping down his forehead — his government, formed scarcely five months ago on April Fool’s Day, was in the throes of civil war back in Paris. We can measure Hollande’s solitude, perhaps, when we recall that he won office under the banner "Le changement, c’est maintenant" ("The time for change is now"). Clearly, now is the time to strike the words "le changement" from the banner and in its place pencil in "la crise."

In fact, there is not one crisis, but several that are now confronting Hollande, his party, and his country. The deep causes of the unfolding drama in France are economic, institutional, structural, and ideological. Yet like a bolt of lightning striking a forest, a single event this past weekend lit up and set alight the French political landscape.

On Sunday, Aug. 24, Minister of Economy Arnaud Montebourg and Minister of Education Benoît Hamon met in Frangy-en-Bresse, the heart of Montebourg’s electoral district in eastern France, for the annual outdoor gathering of local Socialists, called the Fête de la Rose. The sharpest thorns, it turned out, were in the toasts and not on the stems.

Taking aim at Hollande’s recent declaration to Le Monde that his government would reduce the national deficit by 50 billion euros in three years, Montebourg declared: "The priority needs to be on getting out of this crisis and the dogmatic reduction of deficits should come second." He left no doubt as to the keeper and enforcer of these dogmas: "France is a free nation that is not duty-bound to align itself with the obsessions of the German right."

Hamon, who like Montebourg belongs to "the left of the left," also emphasized the existence of alternatives to the politics of austerity embraced by Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls. While Hamon insisted on his loyalty to the government, he knew he was invited to the gathering because, in an interview a few days earlier, he had affirmed his support for a growing number of Socialist frondeurs in the National Assembly. The term "frondeur" was coined in the 17th century to identify those aristocrats and commoners rebelling against the Bourbon monarchy, but now is applied to those Socialists who are increasingly restive over their government’s efforts to reduce the national deficit and lighten the tax burden on businesses, while unemployment continues to climb and the social fabric continues to fray.

Whether Montebourg and Hamon had scripted their hit-and-run or had just savored one too many glasses of the local wine, it didn’t matter. The consequences were immediate.

According to several sources, Valls delivered an ultimatum to a waterlogged Hollande on Ile de Sein: "It’s either them or me." Hollande, though notorious for his inability to make decisions, immediately demanded the resignation of all his ministers. He then renamed Valls as prime minister and tasked him with forming a new government.

The president had no choice. He had to keep Valls by his side. Only five months earlier, in the wake of the Socialist Party’s pummeling in the municipal elections, Hollande named Valls as his new prime minister in the hope that he could save his own presidency by carrying out the painful belt-tightening demanded by Brussels, all the while keeping his ministers in line. The pugnacious and authoritative Valls, then serving as minister of the interior, was the only politician with the necessary credentials to reverse the Socialist government’s dimming popular support.

Hollande’s hopes for salvation have proved illusory so far. Not only does he continue to break his own records as France’s most unpopular president in recent history, but Valls, who has his eyes fixed on the 2017 presidential election, has seen his own ratings plunge as well. The events preceding and following the resignation and remaking of the government have less to do with France’s dire economic and social condition than the jockeying for the best position in the polls. Like Valls, Montebourg is young, determined, and ambitious. In the 2011 Socialist primaries he ran against both Hollande and Valls. Though he lost to the former, Montebourg ran circles around Valls, winning 17 percent of the vote against Valls’s 6 percent.

The coming months will reveal whether it would have been safer for Valls to keep Montebourg in the government, and thus tied, however loosely, to its policies, or push him out and thus free him to oppose the government. But what has been clear for quite a while is that the two men represent the two principal wings within the Socialist Party that are now struggling for its soul. Last year, the New York Times‘s well-known specialist in French politics, Maureen Dowd, described Montebourg as the "Charles de Gaulle de gauche." The comparison spurred many smirks in France, though not nearly as many as did Montebourg’s own self-description this week: "I will follow the example of Cincinnatus, who preferred to quit politics and return to his fields and plow." (A stirring comparison, once we overlook that Montebourg never farmed a day in his life and rather than quitting, was fired.)

But there is at least one crucial conviction shared by Montebourg and de Gaulle: the primordial importance of the state in cultivating and protecting the nation’s economy and industries. Montebourg first made his mark in 2011 with his campaign pamphlet, titled "Votez pour la démondialisation!" ("Vote for de-globalization!"), which denounced the "cult of free markets" and the "fundamentalists of unrestrained commerce." Globalization, which Montebourg associates with the United States, was undermining not just France’s cultural and economic health, but also its national sovereignty. As minister of industrial recovery, then minister of the economy under Hollande, Montebourg continued to play the protectionist card, most notably in his failed effort to keep open and in French hands a faltering steel plant in the economically depressed town of Florange.

While this is a card Montebourg will play in the coming months, Valls will instead deal from a different ideological deck. Ever since he joined the Socialist Party, Valls has situated himself on the liberal right. In the peculiar vocabulary of French politics, this means that Valls wants to lighten the state’s footprint in the marketplace, but maintain it in the public sphere. In the tradition of Georges Mandel, the Socialist minister of the interior in the 1930s who hounded the fascist leagues and Communist Party with equal vigor, Valls insists that a Socialist can be as authoritative, if not downright authoritarian, as someone from the right. (Not surprisingly, the title of Valls’s own 2011 campaign pamphlet was "Security," which was preceded by the no less significant "Let’s Finish with the Old Socialism" and "Power.")

The test for both men will come next month, when Valls has promised he will go to the National Assembly and demand a vote of confidence for the new government and the continuation of its economic policies. With the elimination from the cabinet of Montebourg and Hamon (plus Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti), as well as the earlier shedding of the Greens, the government’s base has dangerously narrowed. It claims 305 supporters, whereas a majority in the National Assembly requires 289 votes.

But Valls and Hollande cannot find much inspiration in the math, since at least 30 Socialists identify themselves as frondeurs, and, in late August, a little more than 200 Socialist deputies signed a manifesto urging their colleagues to support the new government. Among the remaining 100 or so, no doubt there were more than a few who were less than reassured when Valls declared to an audience of business executives on Wednesday: "J’aime l’enterprise!" While the executives swooned, the editors of L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party, moaned that Valls had just delivered "the left’s corpse" to capitalism.

It may well be that — as the title to one of Valls’s pamphlets would have it — France is finished with traditional socialism. What will take its place, however, remains to be seen.