While several Social Democratic and Socialist parties are regaining a certain electoral audience in Western Europe, in the French presidential race, the socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo won 1.75 per cent – the lowest for the Socialist Party since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. Hidalgo cannot be held as the only one responsible for this terrible score. It is the result of a combination of long-term, mid-term and, to a lesser extent, short-term factors.
The fall of the Socialist Party (PS) hits any observer of the French political life. In the aftermath of François Hollande’s success in the presidential elections of 2012, the PS held the majority in all elected assemblies at the national and local levels. Even the traditionally right-leaning Senate – the upper Chamber in France – was held by a PS majority. Ten years later, however, the party is following a similar path as the Greek PASOK in the same year as Hollande’s victory. From being a solid party of government, the PS is turning into an organisation unable to exert any influence on national affairs – a phenomenon that commentators have coined as ‘pasokisation’.
Long term transformations of capitalism and democracy that originated in the 1970s have weighed heavily on the decline of the PS, and on the French Left more widely. Deindustrialisation profoundly reshaped the working conditions of the low and working classes. Like all the Western industrialised countries, France entered an era of high structural unemployment in the 1980s which weakened the organisation of collective work structures, primarily trade unionism. The marginalisation of intermediaries between the political Left and the popular milieux contributes to explaining why an increasing number of workers progressively broke with the PS and the French Communist Party.
Most of them expressed their distrust towards representative democracy by regularly opting to abstain in elections, with some deciding to vote for the radical right party Front National (FN), which started to gain support in the 1984 European elections. Only a minority rallied behind radical left organisations. Above all, an increasing majority among the new generations of blue-collar workers, employees, and craftspeople, stopped voting or chose to vote for the right or radical right parties.
The political choices made by the Socialist governments of the François Mitterrand presidency (1981-1995) spurred the divorce between French socialism and the popular milieux. Mitterrand’s first term engaged the PS in a process of convergence with the dominating austerity approach, promoted in the Western world and by international organisations like the IMF and World Bank. These included a strong currency, recognising the benefits of competition to justify disinflation, as well as embracing globalisation and financial liberalisation. Similarly, the reinforcement of the European Economic Community, which Mitterrand made a top priority after 1983, implied the acceptance of a pro-market paradigm to the detriment of any radical transformation of French society.
These political choices led to major sociological transformations of both Socialist voters and grassroots activists. The PS turned into an organisation sociologically and ideologically dominated by elites who held strong cultural and economic capital. Contrary to most of its Social Democratic counterparts, the PS has never been a mass party, and this trait became increasingly apparent from the 1980s on, as it professionalised and underwent a process labelled as ‘cartellisation’, an increasing dependence on the state for funding and expertise to the detriment of popular support.
In the 2000s, after the shock provoked by the unexpected defeat of Lionel Jospin in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, a major ideological fracture over the issue of Europe emerged. Whereas the leadership of the PS in 2005 – then headed by François Hollande – supported the “Yes” in the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, a significant minority defended the “No” vote. Led by Mitterrand’s former liberal and pro-market Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, who mostly supported “No” for tactical reasons, this faction argued that the project of the constitution was too economically liberal and did not seriously take into account the issue of “Social Europe” that European Socialist and Social Democratic parties were supposed to promote.
During this decade, the image of the PS was also downgraded by fierce quarrels for the leadership. In 2008, a highly controversial contest opposed Ségolène Royal (the defeated socialist candidate in the 2007 presidential race) and Martine Aubry, who remained popular among leftist voters for having passed legislation for a 35-hour working week under the Jospin government (1997-2002). Historically, the PS was a party in which ideological and tactical divergences could be publicly expressed, but this battle for the leadership (during which both camps were accused of fraud and manipulations) sent a wrong signal to voters.
However, the decisions made by the PS during their term in office, as well as its internal divisions between 1981 and 2012 did not call into question its hegemony on the Left. The party still had several strong assets. The first was that it was well-rooted in local politics as it managed numerous municipalities and regions. This included major international and cosmopolitan cities like Paris, Lyon and Toulouse, as well as in the West and South-West of France. Second, the PS also benefited from its credibility to govern due to the solid expertise it held in managing the state. Third, Socialist governments had passed important laws allowing the PS to nurture a social image that its own economic options had deteriorated: reduced working hours, paid holidays and reforms designed to combat the ‘new poverty’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the most famous examples include Rocard’s Revenu minimum d’insertion – a social welfare programme for people without any income – and Jospin’s Couverture Maladie Universelle – a social security programme concerning healthcare – which testified to the influence of PS policy on the development and modernisation of the welfare state.
The Hollande presidency is therefore crucial to understanding the brutal decline of French Socialism. Six months after seizing power, the Socialist head of state publicly embraced social liberalism. Far from socialist voters’ expectations, Hollande assumed that supply-side socialism based on the goal to increase the competitiveness of French firms through tax relief was more efficient than traditional Keynesian measures such as raising low wages to stimulate growth. Like Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair in the late 1990s, Hollande saw himself as leading a ‘third way’ for socialism, one between social democracy and liberalism.
Supply-side socialism favoured by Hollande during his term, and with the blessing of most ministers of his government under Prime Minister Manuel Valls – among which was his Economic minister Emmanuel Macron – reflects a very similar approach to the role that the state should have in shaping the economy as the approaches taken by other Western European parties in power at the time. This is true for conservative as well as Social Democratic governments throughout Western Europe. The political cost of these choices was however huge. Shortly after Valls’ appointment as Prime Minister in March 2014, the government had to face a ‘fronde’, a revolt, among Socialist deputies. This fracture was never resolved by the end of the Hollande presidency, and it continues today. A group of deputies supported by former ministers like Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, as well as leading figures of the PS like Martine Aubry, publicly expressed their concerns about the “competitiveness pact”, which centred on €30 billion of corporate tax relief through to 2017. They urged the government to implement measures in favour of social justice, as well as increase purchase power by raising low wages, pensions, and providing further social provisions. Hollande’s proposal to revoke citizenship of dual-national terrorists in late 2015, which was followed by the promulgation of a law reinforcing the flexibility of the labour market the year after, deepened the divide between the Hollande government and socialist voters. Tellingly, teachers, who were perhaps the most faithful groups of Socialist voters since the 1970s, and who massively supported Hollande in 2012, had moved away from the PS.
In 2017, internal dissent was so strong that the incumbent president had to renounce his campaign for the presidency. The official PS candidate, Benoît Hamon, failed to rally the apparatus behind his nomination. Most partisan elites chose to join Emmanuel Macron, while a minority opted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his radical left movement La France insoumise (LFI). These factors played a prominent role in the scant support earned by Hamon (6.36 per cent).
The PS then experienced hard times, even though it succeeded in preserving positions in local governments. The new leader of the party, Olivier Faure, failed to gather the rival strains that coexisted inside the party. Nor did he succeed in imposing a new strategy of alliances with other leftist organisations. In 2020, his proposal to support a Green candidate in the upcoming presidential race met hostility from a large part of elites and local PS activists.
Similarly, to 2007 and 2017, the appointed candidate of the party in 2022, Anne Hidalgo, who has always kept a distance from the PS, was not earnestly supported by the organisation in which the number of adherents was impressively decreasing (today it counts less than 30,000 members – down from more than 170,000 in 2012). Despite her attempt to overcome these weaknesses through mobilising Socialist mayors and local representatives – the last asset of French Socialism – Hidalgo’s campaign never really took off.
Whereas crucial legislative elections for the future of the PS are coming soon, the party and its local elites remained profoundly divided over alliances. Two options are currently available. Olivier Faure and his aides are inclined to accept the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has rallied most leftist votes during the presidential election (21.95 per cent). This choice would imply placing programmatic divergences with Mélenchon’s party LFI on foreign and European policies on the backburner and starting a (rather humiliating) negotiation to obtain a handful of winnable constituencies, knowing that LFI’s local influence is much weaker than that of the PS. Another option that is defended by numerous Socialist local elites, as well as by the remaining supporters of François Hollande, would be to follow its own way and launch an operation of reconquest ‘from below’, risking however that the party may fail in the legislative elections to muster the coalition necessary for being a major group in the National Assembly. This would be a first in the history of the Fifth Republic.
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