France’s Socialist Game of Trônes

Winter is coming for François Hollande, and a cast of outsiders is vying for the party’s iron throne.


Meet France’s Sebastien Nadot. 43 years old with chiseled good looks and the easy air of an athlete — which, it happens, he is. With degrees in physical education and history, Nadot has been a teacher but has never held an elective office in his life. What better qualification for president? Last week, Nadot announced he would serve as the candidate for the Mouvement des progressistes (MdP) in the next presidential election, set for 2017. Acknowledging he had no experience in politics, Nadot was unfazed.

What’s interesting is that Robert Hué, head of the MdP and a lifelong politician himself, seemed equally unfazed. Before announcing Nadot’s candidacy, Hué had been among the few remaining allies of France’s current president, François Hollande; during the last cabinet reshuffle, his name was even batted about as a potential minister. That he now sees fit not just to endorse another candidate for president, but to declare that the mission of his party is to “tear down the professionalization of political life” in France, speaks volumes on the bedraggled state of the Socialist Party and, more broadly, the French Left.

According to a recent poll, scarcely one out of 10 French voters wishes to see Francois Hollande run for a second term as president. Moreover, short of running against Henri de Lesquen, an independent candidate who insists on the benefits of slavery and promises to ban “black music” from France, Hollande loses against every possible array of opponents, ranging from former president Nicolas Sarkozy to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National. Though preparing to launch his re-election campaign, Hollande seems to recognize his predicament. In a new book on his tenure as president, Hollande is quoted as saying that should he succeed in reversing the unemployment curve by the end of the 2016, if the nation’s “mood is still depressed, [my campaign] is screwed.”

Members of Hollande’s Socialist Party clearly agree with that sentiment. They disagree, however, on most everything else – including who should take over as leader of the French Left.

On one side stand the so-called frondeurs, or rebels—the moniker originally given to the French nobility that, in the 17th century, resisted the rise of the absolutist Bourbon monarchy. This group, led in the National Assembly by Christian Paul, is fiercely committed to the Socialist Party’s traditional social democratic ideology and deeply suspicious of any indulgence of “neo-liberal” economic reforms, or rhetoric that might be interpreted as reactionary.

Two political crises, in particular, have exposed Hollande’s narrowing base of support with this group. The first of these, the misbegotten effort to strip convicted terrorists of their French citizenship, was self-inflicted. In late March, after a long and bitter debate in both houses of Parliament, the proposed constitutional amendment died in the Senate. Not only was it a moral disgrace, but a tactical blunder, because it also alienated the frondeurs, who accused their leadership of pandering to supporters of the conservative Les Républicains and extreme right-wing Front National.

They returned to the barricades when the government presented a series of labor reforms in mid-February in a frantic bid to stop the steady rise of unemployment figures. Compared with labor laws in other Western countries, the so-called El Khomri law — named after the minister of labor, Myriam El Khomri — was relatively modest. Nibbling at the edges of the 35-hour workweek, which has been in effect since 2000, the proposed reforms gave employers greater leeway to negotiate longer hours and lower overtime pay with their workers, and imposed a limit on the amount paid to a worker in the case of wrongful dismissal.

While Prime Minister Manuel Valls expected a hostile response from the unions, he was blindsided by the reaction of lycée and university students. The proposed measures, they declared, would undermine their right to job security, instead bequeathing them “une vie précaire.” (Never mind that 27 percent of those 25 and younger are out of work—a catastrophic comparison to the already disastrous 20 percent average across the European Union.) Carrying banners and signs redolent of the spirit of 1968, declaring “The night is made for love, not work,” the anxieties expressed by the student protesters over their future resonate with the wider French public, two-thirds of whom insist on the inviolable nature of the Labor Code. After several weeks of protests, Valls announced that it would spend 400 million to 500 million euros a year in order to better integrate students into the workforce. Student leaders declared their satisfaction with the concessions.

The frondeurs, however, were again erecting barricades within their own party. Appalled by this latest sign of a creeping neo-liberal infection of their party, they allied themselves with deputies from other left-wing parties to kill the proposed bill. In response, the government decided to strong-arm the now nearly unrecognizable legislation through Parliament. They invoked 49-3, a constitutional provision that allows the government to override parliamentary opposition on certain votes. Outraged by this move, the frondeurs tried to censure their own government on Wednesday, falling just two votes shy of the necessary 60 votes.

By battling Hollande, the frondeurs are trying to reassert their control over the Socialists’ present agenda. But there’s little reason to think they represent the party’s future. Although they present themselves as moralists, defending the humanist legacy of French socialism, hardly any of them – not even Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, who wrote the 35-hour workweek as minister of labor in 2000 — much inspires their fellow citizens. Their very professionalism is a large part of the problem; whatever their stated ideology, the French public has come to believe that politicians are craven creatures driven mostly by self-interest – above all, a desire to defend their seats.

Which is why it should be no surprise that the rising stars of the French Left are two anti-politicians, Emmanuel Macron and Nicolas Hulot. They differ greatly in their ideological profile, though not in their mutual interest in the country’s highest political office.

Until two years ago, few people in France recognized Macron’s name. An overachieving graduate of France’s prestigious training ground for its political and financial elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, Macron was enjoying a lucrative career as an investment banker when, in 2014, Hollande plucked him to replace Arnaud Montebourg, who had just been fired as minister of economy. The contrast could not have been greater: Whereas Montebourg embodied the fierce socialist attachment to state intervention in the nation’s economic affairs, Macron soon revealed his “liberal,” or free market, predilections. The most significant element of the legislation he sponsored in 2015 to “unlock the French economy” was a provision to allow large department stores to remain open on Sundays. The reform proved so controversial that it obliged the government to dust off 49-3 for the first time in order to push it through the National Assembly.

Yet this battle polished Macron’s reputation as a plain-speaking outsider determined to fix a broken system. Last month, in order to build upon this reputation as being above the political fray, Macron launched a political movement he dubbed En Marche! He said it was a response to the stultifying ideologies of the socialists no less than conservatives. Seeking a “third way,” Macron wants his movement to blaze a path that is “neither right nor left.” (For such a bright individual, Macron revealed himself to be a bad student of history: the slogan “ni droite, ni gauche” was the very same one used by French technocrats during the interwar years who eventually found a home in the authoritarian Vichy regime.)

Moreover, a recent speech Macron gave on the anniversary of Joan of Arc did not endear to his employer. Invited by the conservative mayor to speak at Orléans, the city Joan liberated from the English, Macron hailed her willingness to “battle the system” and “unite the nation.” Knowing all too well that Macron’s arrows were striking fellow Socialists as well as the conservative opponents, Hollande’s staff reminded him of his ministerial obligation. This reminder was reinforced, in full public view, last week when Valls had a heated exchange with Macron in the National Assembly over the activities of En Marche! The horrified expressions of two other ministers, seated between the two men, reflected the widespread fear of the growing and perhaps irreparable schism within their party. (On Wednesday, this schism widened even more: According to the online paper Médiapart, Macron is preparing to announce his candidacy as an independent on June 20.)

Given the rising popularity of Macron, this horror is justified. According to a poll published last month in Libération, nearly 40 percent of those respondents who traditionally vote on the left believe that the minister of economy would be the Socialists candidate in 2017. The problem, of course, is that as many, if not more, left-wing sympathizers are repelled by Macron.

Yet those voters now have another option in a similar mold: Nicolas Hulot. Like the presumptive nominee of the U.S. Republican Party, Hulot established his reputation on television; unlike Donald Trump, he has better hair and sounder credentials. Host of the show Ushuaïa, a mix of National Geographic and Greenpeace, Hulot rocketed to fame by the end of the 1990s. Seeking to build upon his celebrity, he created the Ushuaïa Foundation, with the stated mission of educating the public on environmental matters, and published a series of books that posed the question, as the title of one demanded, “How Many Disasters Before We Act?”

As a photogenic Cassandra on ecological matters, Hulot finally drew the attention of the political establishment. In 2003, then-President Jacques Chirac offered Hulot the ministry of environment. No doubt realizing that he risked losing both his punch and popularity, Hulot refused the offer, but instead persuaded Chirac to append an “Environmental Charter” to the constitution, which was signed into law in 2005. Hollande doubled down on Chirac’s offer, proposing a “super-ministry of the environment” to Hulot. Once again, Hulot refused, but he did agree to serve in an unremunerated position as Hollande’s “global envoy” on environmental matters.

In January, Hulot stepped down from this position. While he refused to criticize Hollande, he expressed a profound pessimism over the willingness of politicians to act on the looming environmental and economic challenges. “We are not equal,” he told Le Monde, to the demands of the present moment. Moreover, he was merciless toward the very same “system” that Macron attacked. Every political initiative, he told the reporter from Le Monde, “is swallowed up by personal quarrels and ideological conflicts.” While Hulot’s critique has its roots in France’s environmental movement, it shares the same impatience with “politics” and “ideology” as does Macron’s technocratic approach.

But, as with Macron, Hulot is playing coy about his political ambitions. “For the moment,” he confided, “I see no one who satisfies this deep thirst on society’s part for a leader to engage in a politics beyond today’s hollow ideologies and partisan attitudes.” Though he insisted that running for president was not yet “part of my software,” he added that life has taught him “that the world changes rapidly, and one’s decision must change with it.” The public seems ready for these changes: A recent poll reveals that more than 60 percent of left-wing voters — and 50 percent of all voters — want to see Hulot “play a more important role in the future.” What role more important than as an independent candidate for the presidency?

Hollande was once on good terms with the notion of change. In 2012, in fact, he ran on the theme of “Change is Now!” (“Le changement, c’est maintenant”) Yet, the optimistic urgency then felt by Socialist voters has since turned into embittered apathy. Apart from his government’s success in making gay marriage a constitutional right, Hollande has overseen changes he’d rather ignore: an ascendant Front National, a strife-torn Socialist Party, and an increasingly alienated electorate. Change, it turns out, is for 2017 — and it will not smile on the Socialists.

Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola