Is France’s Socialist Party Back From the Dead?
As Macron’s luster fades in local elections, Socialist leaders are planning a return to national politics—in alliance with the Greens.
PARIS—One of the most common narratives in French politics in the age of President Emmanuel Macron is that the Socialist Party has disappeared for good. Increasingly, though, it appears the once-dominant party’s obituaries were written too soon.
“Everyone has wanted to put the nail in the coffin of the Socialist Party,” Olivier Faure, the party’s first secretary, told Foreign Policy from his office in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. “Well, we’re not dead.”
Faure has spent the last two years making that case to voters. But the second round of France’s local elections on June 28 have added indisputable heft to his argument: Not only did the Socialist Party (PS) hold on to its majorities in key cities—fending off challenges in Lille, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, and Clermont-Ferrand—but it also flipped a number of major cities in alliance with other left-wing parties, largely the Greens. Cities that were previously governed by either centrist or right-wing mayors—including France’s second- and third-largest cities, Marseille and Lyon—will now be governed by left coalitions with PS backing, as will Bordeaux and Nancy. And in Paris, Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo held onto her seat.
The Socialists may not return to their old heights on the national level anytime soon, given that the party continues to suffer from low polling and image problems that date back to the spectacularly unpopular presidency of François Hollande. A survey from February found that only a third of French voters view the party favorably, while more recent ones have shown that less than 20 percent have a positive image of Olivier Faure, who remains remarkably unknown for someone in his position. Far more have no opinion of Faure at all.
Still, last month’s results highlight the fact that a large swath of the public is willing to keep its faith in the party. And for the PS leadership, the elections are only fueling a sense the party has a critical role to play as the 2022 presidential race approaches—this time, in alliance with the Greens. A joint presidential ticket would face obstacles, ranging from the approval of both parties and the adoption of a common platform to the delicate question of selecting a candidate. Nevertheless, Faure argues that unity with the Greens could pave the path to victory—no matter if the candidate his party ultimately endorses isn’t a Socialist.
“This election shows the emergence of a socialist-ecological bloc that is a possible alternative to the liberalism of Emmanuel Macron and the far-right of Marine Le Pen,” Faure said. “We’re not condemned to a choice between the liberals and the nationalists, but in fact, the opening of another political chapter is possible.”
Three years ago, the party appeared to be fading into irrelevance. In late 2016, Socialist President François Hollande opted not to run for a second term—a reflection of his abysmal approval ratings—and the party’s eventual candidate Benoit Hamon went on to earn a pitiful 6 percent of the vote in the following year’s first-round presidential race. On its left flank, the PS seemed eclipsed by the populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise, or “France Unbowed,” who received nearly 20 percent of the vote, just a fraction less than Macron and Marine Le Pen, who went on to compete in the final round. Meanwhile, the party’s centrist core looked to have been swallowed up by Macron, a former economy minister under Hollande who attracted dozens of ex-Socialist officials and parliamentarians to his newly formed party, En Marche!.
The party’s fall from grace was epitomized by the 46 million euro ($53 million) sale of the PS’s headquarters on the Rue de Solférino on Paris’s Left Bank. A onetime symbol of the PS’s transition from opposition to government, the glitzy building had been acquired in 1980, just months before François Mitterrand became the first Socialist president in the history of the French Fifth Republic. But while the PS suffered ups and downs over the subsequent decades, the costs of the party’s shellacking in 2017 were ultimately too great to bear. Facing a steep drop in state subsidies tied to its poor election results (the party’s annual budget plummeted from 28 million euros to 8 million), Socialist leaders ultimately decided to decamp to the southeastern suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine in the fall of 2018, setting up shop in a nondescript building near the train tracks.
Faure has overseen the painful rebuilding process. Much of the job has involved apologizing for the Hollande years—which disappointed many traditional PS supporters, but especially inflamed more left-leaning voters who had propelled the president into office, eager most of all to give the boot to his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Not only we were not up to the expectations that had been nourished by the election of François Hollande, but even worse for the French people, we were capable of doing the opposite of what we had been expected to do,” Faure said. “This creates a problem, a feeling of betrayal that runs deep.”
On the campaign trail, candidate Hollande famously declared that his “adversary” was “the world of finance.” But once in office, the president did little to tackle inequalities at home or use France’s leverage to rein in austerity measures across the EU. Under his watch, Socialists approved reforms to make it easier to lay off workers, defying protests from trade unions, while in the aftermath of the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, the party leaders proposed legislation to strip convicted terrorists of French nationality. Hollande’s government ultimately withdrew that proposal, but not before sparking immense backlash and provoking the resignation of the country’s well-liked justice minister, Christiane Taubira.
Under Faure’s leadership, by contrast, the Socialists have aimed to recast themselves as a left-wing opposition party, showing little appetite for Macron’s agenda. In the National Assembly, the party has regularly voted with deputies from the Communist Party and Mélenchon’s party against the president’s pro-business reforms, from changes in labor law and the pension system to cuts in unemployment benefits.
Faure believes the old left-right divide is alive and well—and that the president fits squarely in the latter camp. “It’s what French people say, it’s what political scientists say, and it’s what I say, too,” he said. “It’s a fact—he’s overseen policies that François Fillon very well could have overseen in his place,” he added, referring to the former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and the mainstream right presidential candidate in 2017.
Since its remodeling, the PS has been able to conserve a bloc of center-left voters. In last year’s elections for European Parliament, the Socialist-backed list won 6 percent of the vote—a weak score overall, but better than being wiped off the map, which had been a real concern as the campaign began. June’s municipal elections, meanwhile, have shown that the PS remains a dominant force at the local level—even if the narrative of a Green wave has shaped the headlines. Of the 42 French cities that count more than 100,000 residents, Socialist-led majorities now lead 14, tied with the right-wing Republicans for the highest amount, while the Greens control eight municipalities. (Mirroring the improved electoral fortunes, reports have also emerged that the Socialist Party is even looking for a new office back in Paris, though Faure insists no deal has been finalized.)
To be sure, there are reasons to temper the enthusiasm. Only around 2 in every 5 voters showed up to the polls on Sunday, the lowest such rate for local elections in the history of the Fifth Republic. That low turnout can be explained, at least in part, by the coronavirus pandemic, but it also comes amid a trend of waning electoral participation overall. Mayors in France also tend to be well-liked, in stark contrast to national politicians. Still, voters haven’t hesitated to punish local elected officials for their national party affiliations in the past—and this time around, many gave a thumbs-up to candidates with the Socialist label.
That includes Nathalie Appéré, the mayor of Rennes, a city of more than 200,000 in a metropolitan area that boasts a level of unemployment well below the national average. Reelected last month, Appéré spent her first term on a series of bread-and-butter initiatives like participatory budgeting, boosting investment in public housing, and overseeing the construction of a new subway line.
“I think at the municipal level, we judge people on their actions and on the record,” Appéré said. “We’re not just Socialists when we’re mayor. We’re Socialists but we’re always something more than that.”
Still, while Appéré coasted to reelection, she did so by forming an alliance with the Greens and merging their lists of candidates before the run-off round. (In the first round, her Socialist ticket won around 33 percent of the vote, followed by 25 percent for the Greens, well ahead of competing lists backed by Macron’s party and the center-right.) Like elsewhere across France, the once-minor environmentalist party gained ground in Rennes, the capital of Brittany. In the 2014 local elections, the Greens also joined forces with the Socialists for the run-off round in Rennes, though at that time they had only earned 15 percent of the first-round vote, compared with 36 percent for the PS. Similar shifts in municipal power dynamics took place nationwide last month, suggesting the Greens could play a critical role in French politics in the years to come.
“For me, this sort of union should prefigure joint work on the national level,” said Appéré of her local alliance. “The Left wins when it’s strong and united. If everyone’s in their corner, they can’t construct a credible alternative.”
Faure agrees. He believes a green-tinged social democratic alternative—“la social-écologie,” as he puts it—is both possible and necessary. “Today there’s a natural complementarity … In my view, this is the political project that we need to create.”
Recent elections have suggested a decent chunk of the electorate backs such an agenda. According to Émeric Bréhier, director of the Observatory of Political Life at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think tank close to the PS, a broad swath of pro-European center-left voters is put off by both the populist style of Mélenchon and inegalitarian reformism of Emmanuel Macron.
“It’s an electorate without a home,” said Bréhier, who also served as a Socialist deputy in the National Assembly from 2012 to 2017. “It’s worth 15 to 25 percent in France. But to get it, you need to talk to it with something clear and precise, with enthusiasm, in a credible way… And at the moment, this is sort of missing.”
To capture such voters, Faure has proposed something that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Not only does he favor a joint Socialist-Green presidential campaign in 2022, but he says he’s prepared to cede the top spot on the ticket to a Green—under the condition, of course, that the future candidate defends a common platform.
One of the names most often floated to fill the role is Yannick Jadot, an EU parliamentarian with the Greens and former Greenpeace France campaign director, who has defended the notion of ecology as a sort of an independent, all-encompassing political project, claiming—like Macron, ironically—to be neither “left nor right.” Éric Piolle, who hails from the left-wing of the Greens and governs in coalition with Mélenchon’s party as mayor of Grenoble, has also expressed an interest in running. Nicolas Hulot, a former TV host and environmental minister, is regularly considered a contender, though he insists he’s not interested. On the Socialist side, Ségolène Royal, the party’s unsuccessful presidential nominee in 2007, has already said she wants to unite with the Greens as a candidate for the Élysée Palace in 2022. Christiane Taubira, Hollande’s former justice minister who resigned over the proposal to revoke French citizenship, has also said she could be up for the task, and could point to her firm principles and experience in government to boot. And Anne Hidalgo—the recently reelected mayor of Paris—could be another contender.
But the path to Green-Socialist unity could be difficult to navigate. An open left-wing primary would be costly to organize and would require buy-in from across the board—something that is far from guaranteed given the surging confidence of Green leaders at this stage. Then again, unfavorable polling once the presidential race heats up could make the prospects of an alliance more attractive, regardless of the candidate each party nominates at first. There’s also the thorny question of how to position an eventual joint ticket vis-à-vis Mélenchon. While polling figures for the ex-Socialist are less favorable than in 2017, Mélenchon still commands a considerable base of support and appears intent on running again.
In this context, some are skeptical as to whether the PS can regain ground on the national level. With France in the midst of a turbulent political reconfiguration, they argue municipal elections are more of a calm in the storm than a sign of where the winds are blowing.
“[Voters] tolerate the old system in local elections, but it’s not likely they’ll want to hand over the fate of the country to the old system again,” said Lenny Benbara, founder and editor of Le Vent Se Lève (“the wind rises”), a left-populist online publication.
Benbara also believes there’s a space for a third force on the national level, but that it would have to look very different than a revival of the center-left. He says it would need to include working-class voters who backed Mélenchon in 2017, those drawn to the burgeoning climate justice movement, and sympathizers of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests who feel alienated from traditional politics.
“Putting such an electoral bloc into place requires new forms of political expression that the center-left cannot express so long as it’s cut off from working-class people,” Benbara said.
Ironically, one of the factors that could encourage at least some form of unity among left-wing parties is the broad distaste they share for Macron. Many left-leaning electors bit their lips and cast votes against the far-right in 2002 and 2017—but there are signs that some are growing weary of the routine.
Among them is Bertrand Kern, the Socialist mayor of Pantin, a working-class suburb of Paris, who was reelected this year. Three years ago, Kern says he wrote a letter to city residents encouraging them to cast votes for Macron against Le Pen—but he vows not to do it again if the two meet in the second round in 2022.
“This time, I’ll let my fellow citizens vote their conscience,” Kern said. “We need to create an alternative to this duel which I think is deadly for French democracy.”
And building that alternative, the mayor argues, all but hinges on some form of unity.
“I’ll remain loyal to my political organization,” Kern said, “but the idea of campaigning for a Socialist candidate who’ll get 5 or 6 percent, and then fighting with the Greens who’ll get 8 or 9 percent, and then Mélenchon who’ll get 10 or 11 percent—honestly, at the end, we’ll all be spectators.”