It’s the End of French Socialism as We Know It
A rising far right, an unpopular president, and an economic crisis. Is this it or can France's Left be saved?
PARIS — Have you heard the one about a French socialist, a conservative, and a reactionary who walk into a café? The waiter, looking at the socialist, asks: “What are you, a joke?”
It’s not all that funny, but neither is the predicament of French socialism right now. The political movement born in the twilight of the 19th century, embodying the ideals of social and economic justice, may not survive the dawn of the 21st century.
Last month, France held its departmental elections. Created during the revolution, the 96 départements represent the nation’s basic administrative and political unit: a hybrid of U.S. state legislatures, with one foot in local affairs, the other in national matters. Observers agreed that the results were “unprecedented” and “historic.” The most obvious reason is the powerful showing by the extreme right-wing National Front (FN) party. While Marine Le Pen’s party did not meet pre-ballot forecasts — the FN fell 5 points shy of the predicted 30 percent, finishing second to the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) — the reality is nonetheless striking. More than 5 million French citizens voted for the FN, doubling the percentage of votes it received in the departmental elections of 2011.
Walking past newsstands in Paris, it is impossible to ignore the fallout from the FN’s explosive surge. Wherever one looks, magazines and newspapers frame the tousled hair, thin smile, and nicotine-cured face of FN leader Marine Le Pen. No political party in France’s recent history has progressed so rapidly in so short a period of time. And it appears the FN is only warming up. As the pollster Jérôme Fourquet declared, this “process of implantation” began in last year’s municipal elections. With FN mayors now in more than a dozen city halls, the party has begun to seed its militants in local councils. This dynamic, Fourquet believes, will build steam as France approaches regional elections in December. Looking ahead to those elections and the presidential elections of 2017, Fouquet warned: “We are far from being done with the FN.”
But the thickening of the FN’s support is only one part of the story. Equally important is the French left’s evaporation. Like the melting of the polar ice caps, the Socialist Party (PS) is steadily retreating from France’s political landscape. Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s claim that the PS made an “honorable score” after the first round of the departmental election smacked of a postgame pep talk from a high school basketball coach whose team showed spirit — even though they lost by 47 points. The ballot boxes were no more forgiving. After the first round of the two-part vote, all the parties on the left — the PS, Communists, Greens, and Parti de Gauche — attracted scarcely one-third of the vote, sinking to a historically low level.
The second round, as political commentators agreed, resulted in an outright “Bérézina” (the name of the Napoleonic defeat during the Russian campaign of 1812 that is now applied to political disasters). The Socialists lost 28 departments, nearly half of those they had controlled since 2011. Tellingly, many of these departments were the fiefs of powerful Socialist politicians: President François Hollande’s native Corrèze, Valls’s Essonne, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s Seine-Maritime all fell to the UMP.
The French Communist Party (PCF), the Socialists’ left flank, also surrendered to the UMP one of the two departments it still governed. France’s leading party in the immediate postwar era, the PCF now runs the risk of seeing its last remaining department, Val-de-Marne, turn into an ideological Colonial Williamsburg, a historical period piece where visitors, marveling at the rusting factories and boarded-up storefronts, can purchase T-shirts stamped with the red hammer and sickle. (Two years ago, to the great dismay of party stalwarts, the PCF leadership removed the historic symbol from its membership cards.)
Le Monde editor in chief Thomas Wieder observed that the PS’s “bloodletting is unprecedented.” The view of his colleague, the veteran political commentator Gérard Courtois, was no less dire. Citing Valls’s recent warning to the party’s political committee that “the left can die,” Courtois dwelled on the meaning of the Socialists’ series of electoral defeats: “Powerless in the face of the ravages caused by the economic crisis, paralyzed by globalization, incapable of redefining an economic policy which both meshes with its values and practical needs, the left appears either ineffective or obsolete.”
Like his mentor François Mitterrand at the start of his own presidency in 1981, François Hollande at first embraced the traditional Socialist line. In his first year in office, he vowed his hatred for finance, proposed a controversial wealth tax, and tried to buoy sinking French industries. The return on Hollande’s efforts was dismal. By the end of 2014, when his campaign promise to “reverse the rising curve of unemployment” proved hollow, the president again took a page from Mitterrand’s playbook. He overhauled his government, tossing out those who advocated anti-austerity policies, and brought in Manuel Valls as prime minister, as well as Emmanuel Macron, a technocrat and former banker, to undertake the liberalization of the country’s burdensome labor laws.
Though the unemployment rate has continued to rise since these stumbling efforts at liberalization, and the Socialists’ left flank continues its guerrilla activities, Hollande reassured German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 31 that his government will not again change direction. But it isn’t clear whether these efforts will reverse what appears to many as the inexorable withering of the PS.
The departmental thumping was the fourth consecutive defeat for the PS since last year. The municipal, European, and Senate elections of 2014 delivered a series of body blows to the party. Yet as unemployment figures continue to rise, and discontent within the party over Macron’s legislation festers (in particular the dominical law that allows department stores to open on Sundays), the Socialist Party’s prospects seem dim. While some observers insist that the waning of the party is merely cyclical and that it will again wax, as it did after 1997, others are less optimistic.
Historically, a tension has pulsated at the heart of French socialism in its attitude toward capitalism and the market economy. When in power, the Socialists have little choice but to accept, though grudgingly, the reality of the marketplace; when in the opposition, they are free, in the phrase of the political theorist Gérard Grunberg, to “redo their ideological virginity.” The problem now confronting the party is that these two tendencies exist simultaneously: While the Socialist government tacks with the current flowing from Brussels, the gusts of wind from the “left of the left” — the so-called frondeurs, or rebels within the party, as well as former allies like the Greens — push in the other direction. As Grunberg concludes, the presence of these countervailing currents “is suicidal.”
Even before the PS’s trouncing in the departmental elections, the political scientist Gaël Brustier coined the term “denationalization of the PS,” by which he means that the party’s base is increasingly limited to the great urban centers. (Neither the residents of Paris nor Lyons, France’s second-largest metropolitan area, qualified to vote in the departmental elections, which may account, in part, for the PS’s poor showing.) For Brustier, a political party’s relevance lasts only as long as “its worldview corresponds with the state of the country’s economy and that this vision is rooted in civil society.”
But Tzvetan Todorov, one of France’s most prominent intellectuals, offers a different perspective. In a conversation last week, he told me that talk about the left’s demise is less premature than myopic. As in the United States, he observed, French voters enjoy punishing the party in power. Skeptical of the current Socialist Party’s ability to respond to the challenges it confronts, Todorov suggested that a “certain kind of left must die for a new one to be born.”
Thierry Pech, director of the Paris-based progressive think tank Terra Nova, also doubts that the left’s days are numbered. He pointed not just to the cyclical pattern of French elections, but also to the failure of the various parties on the left to form a common front. This, he noted, is “certain death in a winner-take-all electoral system.” As for the long-term prospects for the left, Pech echoed Todorov’s observation. Everything depends on the left’s “ability to adapt its political agenda to present-day realities”: the necessity of an open economy and the pressures of international competition. Whether the left can modernize, Pech concluded, is a question that “remains open.”
Indeed, all bets are off. With the burgeoning of the FN, France’s political landscape has changed dramatically: The Fifth Republic, which had been a two-party system ever since its birth in 1958, has now divided into three political blocs. It may well take the shock of losing the first round of the 2017 presidential election, thus leaving the UMP and FN to fight it out in the second round, for the Socialists to undertake the revitalization, perhaps even resurrection, of their party. But the challenge will be great. The PS will need to accept a more modest role of the state in economic affairs, yet maintain the state’s presence by maintaining the pillars of the so-called “État-providence,” or welfare state, in the lives of those most threatened by economic change.
For the moment, the fate of the entire left is tied to that of the Socialists. As Pech noted, those parties to the left of the Socialists, like Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche, “cultivate a hoary anti-capitalist discourse aimed at a shrinking number of industrial workers.” Moreover, short of a true economic crisis, like those afflicting Greece and Spain, France will probably not see the birth of alternative movements like Syriza or Podemos.
It is not just the left, but the French Republic that is reaching a turning point. A quotation now making the rounds among Socialists is Antonio Gramsci’s famous remark: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” But in his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci also warned against the rise of charismatic leaders carried to power by desperate voters. That the Socialists are increasingly incapable of competing with the xenophobic National Front should spark a frisson for all those who think about the future of French democracy.
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