The tragedy of the French Left

Laurent Bouvet
6 August 2002

During the spring 2002 series of French elections – presidential and legislative – the country’s political landscape was turned upside down. In April, the prime minister and socialist party (PS) candidate for the presidency, Lionel Jospin, was defeated in the first round by the veteran candidate of the Far-Right, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Then, in June, Jospin’s party was decisively defeated in the parliamentary elections, which brought a new government of the centre-right to power. In the midst of a season of political surprise and turmoil, the presidency of Jacques Chirac was confirmed for a second seven-year term.

What was involved here was no mere switch from left to right in government and the National Assembly, but a profound political upheaval. It marks the moment to start rebuilding the Left – from its very foundations. And of course it should not escape our attention that this occurs at a time when, everywhere in Europe (except Britain and east-central Europe), left and centre-left powers are in retreat.

The shock of 21 April

On 21 April, the French Left experienced one of the darkest moments in its history. If the emotional blow was due to the presence of the Far-Right at the heart of an advanced democracy, the real political shock was the collapse of the Left, and particularly the PS. In the history of the Fifth Republic, this may not be the first time its leader has been knocked out in the first round (this also happened in 1969) nor its first great defeat (recall the failures of June 1968 or March 1993). Nevertheless, the magnitude of Lionel Jospin’s defeat (albeit very narrow) to Jean-Marie Le Pen is highly revealing.

The results of the first round were both improbable and incongruous: firstly because the victorious French Far-Right leader has been on the scene for a quarter of a century; and secondly because defeat occurred after a five-year period of governance widely recognised (despite the ‘erosion effect of cohabitation’) as one of the best in the Fifth Republic’s history – both for its economic and social achievements, and for the effective leadership of its prime minister.

Moreover, Jospin’s political opposition (in the person of Jacques Chirac) had lost considerable credibility from his defeat in 1997 onwards, following the dissolution of the National Assembly and the lawsuits with which he has been linked. In the first round, the defeat was therefore beyond comprehension.

But however painful and extraordinary the shock, a rational analysis must be attempted. It can be attempted through a summary and assessment of the existing explanatory responses. These can be graded into three categories, from the most superficial to the most profound, roughly as follows. Firstly, it was all the fault of the captain, Lionel Jospin, and his campaign; secondly, it was the result of a defect in political positioning on the right–left axis; thirdly, it flowed from a lack of social and historical understanding of current French society and its contemporary political moment. Each of these levels of analysis links to the others, of course.

Lionel Jospin: a personal and political failure

The most superficial explanation of the defeat holds Lionel Jospin and his campaign chiefly responsible. The campaign was bad, admittedly. It was a typical ‘second-round’ campaign, built exclusively around a duel to the death with Jacques Chirac. This included personal attacks referring to Chirac’s age – this against the backdrop of an ageing French society whose ‘senior citizens’ now constitute a significant slice of the electorate (to say nothing of the marginal age difference between the two candidates!).

Nobody in Jospin’s campaign team understood this tactic. More importantly, thanks to Jospin’s allegedly ‘psychorigid’ character, and a certain lack of self-reflection, the campaign was mainly waged on the assumption that, “we are going to win because we are the best.” By the beginning of 2002, everyone in the PS and the government was still convinced that the Left would easily win the support of ‘the people’. It occurred to some, however, that a good project was also needed.

Both the PS and Jospin himself were rather too well represented by their respective chief publicists, Martine Aubry and Pierre Moscovici – énarques become ministers – whose propensity to listen to new ideas, genuine debate, or opinions diverging from theirs was inversely proportional to their considerable political ambitions.

The result was a want of serious analysis of French society, not to mention the international and European conditions in which France now finds herself. Once more, the party and its candidate faced an electoral challenge armed with what looked more like administrative reports than winning manifestos. Although unacknowledged by successive socialist leaders, this has in fact been the case for the last fifteen years.

In the opposite corner, Chirac did not lead a campaign significantly different to that in 1995 – even though, as the challenger from the right opposing Edouard Balladur, he had then been in a very different situation. He dwelt on one theme alone – that of insecurity (in 1995 it was ‘social breakdown’) – while keeping an eye on his traditional electorate with promises of lower taxes. Whatever the profundity of his claim, the main point to note for this presidential campaign was that once again he found a way to convince enough voters to put him in the lead for the first round.

The character of the election results was due not just to the fragmentation of left-wing votes, but to an especially high abstention rate – if blank votes and spoilt ballot papers are added to abstentions, almost 40% of the electorate refused to cast a vote.

The multiple candidatures on the left were one result of a striking lack of political management on the part of the plural left in recent years of government, a plural left held responsible for the success of ‘Jospinism’ between the years 1998–2000. Unquestionably, there was a failure on Jospin’s part. In hesitating so long over a political modernisation, which might offend some of the diverse left-wing ‘sensibilities’, he allowed some of these left-wing competitors to claim a position as historic heirs of the true left, and to argue moreover that they constituted the best way to influence the Left in power. Suffice it to say that, after letting off steam in the presidential election, French voters sent all these left candidates packing, each to his or her sad and anachronistic calculations.

The pendulum is broken

This brings us to the explanation which points at the general positioning of the ‘plural left’ on the left–right axis, arguing that they lost because they were not ‘left-wing enough’. This kind of explanation may be comforting for some, but it bears little examination. The argument that Jospin lost because he was not ‘right-wing’ enough, which you hear less often, is in itself, scarcely less absurd.

This is because the policies initiated for five years by Lionel Jospin and his majority can as easily be used to illustrate ‘left-wing policy’ as ‘right-wing policy’. Much political energy was expended, inside the French Left, on demonstrating the ‘betrayal’ of left-wing ideals and the ‘people of the Left’ by government, and yet in also pointing out how the government programme was in the great tradition of the French Left from Jean Jaurès to François Mitterrand via Léon Blum. Needless to say, this swinging pendulum exercise was rather ineffective. So, the terms left and right, if they are not to be reduced to total abstractions, are not useful here.

This is not to say that the distinction between left and right no longer pertains. It still represents a considerable value of ultimate political identification, an electoral rallying point and, more generally, a mode of social recognition. But the terms no longer evoke an unchanging content. Put simply, they no longer fulfil the economic, political, social and cultural requirements for evaluating contemporary societies. To advance the left–right axis as the sole standard of measurement of political choice leads to a form of blindness shared by only the most impartial analyst and the fiercest ideologue. In both cases, the analysis loses most of its heuristic relevance and its power to convince.

One can easily illustrate this loss of meaning in the evocation and invocation of the ‘left–right axis’ by looking at two sets of policies of Jospin’s ‘plural left’. Measures that could be characterised as ‘left-wing’ included CMU (Universal Health Cover), youth employment, male–female equality and PACS (Civil Solidarity Pact, a civil agreement between two persons of the same or opposite sex to organise their life together). These all involved the granting of new civil rights, expanding social guarantees, or favouring the employee’s interest (with the impersonal state backing this up as guarantor and financier). Such measures perfectly illustrate a traditional idea of what the Left is and what it should do. Yet these ran alongside measures that could easily be assimilated into right-wing policy, such as, for example, privatisations or lower income tax.

The emblematic reform of the Jospin government – the 35-hour week – is, in fact, a typical example of a more fundamental ambivalence, whether it is the analyst or those directly affected by the policy who are doing the evaluating. This measure, following the idea of reducing the working week presented in left-wing programmes since 1936, and intended as much to favour employment (the major theme of Lionel Jospin’s 1997 legislative campaign) as to free up the employee’s time, has been interpreted and experienced in at least two different ways.

The more privileged employees – those belonging to large companies and to the ‘middle class’ – experienced the measures as a real expansion of free time without any drop in income. But for a whole strata of less fortunate workers – particularly factory workers and employees of smaller units, where reduced work time swiftly took the form of an increase of productivity per worker – they were both a constraint and the cause of further hardship.

The great ‘left-wing’ measure of Lionel Jospin’s government, which proudly bears the name of his then minister for social affairs, Martine Aubry, was in fact legally put in place in the absence of any national negotiations between the social partners, thanks to corporate and establishment recognition of the need for greater work flexibility.

This flexibility could indeed be positive in one area (an employee benefiting from more holidays per year or one more day off every two weeks) but negative in another (an employee only able to benefit from this reduction by extending the length of his breaks every day, for example). This is a real brain-teaser, particularly as the rules apply differently depending on the size of the company.

As a result, what was supposed to be a cornerstone of the Jospin record has often been cited inside important segments of the working population as one justification for rejecting the Left in government. Only the better-off voters, notably in great cities such as Paris (where the vote for the Left was sustained and even increased!), gave their support to the promotion of a measure that improved their quality of life via more holidays and longer weekends.

Indeed, the emblem of the 35-hour week revealed rather more than the ‘divide between working class and middle class’ that instant pundits pretended to detect in the failure of 21 April. There was a more serious and profound underlying cause: the real difficulty of giving an accurate reading of French society and its breakdown.

French society is unreadable

We reach here our deepest level of explanation. To win an election, crudely put, there needs to be a political offering well adapted, more or less, to the demand for it. But what if society’s demand appears blurred or contradictory? As it happens, this is what is occurring in France today. Social demand and its political analysis are as blurred as they are imprecise.

Today, the individualisation of career paths and the crumbling of great social categories have eroded as well as complicated traditional social distinctions. In the past, these could be charted by statistical or political assessments based on class or socio-professional categories devised over fifty years ago, during the rise of a welfare state and mixed economy with considerable autonomy inside its national frontiers.

These traditional class divisions have been blown away by macroeconomic transformations (the opening of frontiers and markets, mass unemployment, ‘structural adjustments’, loss of state tools of monetary and financial policymaking) as much as by the changes in types of production, consumption and savings that they have produced.

In particular, the idea, as well as the sociological reality, of a working class, has receded. Of course, manual workers or service sector employees with a precarious employment status still exist; but a working class culture can no longer be read off from this simple fact.

In contemporary society, a worker can in principle belong either to the middle class, or to the working class, or be completely excluded from the production and social system for an extended period. There is no longer a common fate between workers and service sector employees, any more than there is one between different categories of farmers. Thus, what does a SNCF railwayman, who benefits from good salary agreements, social cover, pension and employment security, have in common with an unemployed miner, or with a worker from the Danone or Lu factories, laid off for productivity and international strategy reasons while the company is making profits?

It is this absence of a common perspective, and even of a common lifestyle, that renders illusory and unnecessary any survey aimed at resurrecting ‘the working class’, let alone its political mobilisation. The recent electoral mishaps of left powers, who thought they could use this discourse, remind us of the basic economic and sociological evidence. On this point, a close study of the different distributions of the ‘working vote’ during the last elections (between Front National, Far-Left and abstentionists particularly) is highly revealing.

Furthermore, any political interpretation of the ‘social demand’ is hazardous even beyond the confusion described here, because the very tools of interpretation are obsolete. We have observed this in relation to the analytical tool of ‘the left–right axis’. Now we can see the same phenomenon emerging among the traditional categories of social assessment – the great aggregates of category and class. This inadequacy of analytical tools sends us back, of course, to question the pertinence of a political organisation which is supposed to employ them – the political party, and, in particular, the party of the Left.

The end of the Epinay cycle

The French elections of spring 2002 indicate a moment of historical or at least cyclical rupture in the history of French socialism. The French PS as it is today was born at the Congres d’Epinay in 1971, at the very particular moment when François Mitterrand, never a socialist until then, took control, with only one idea in mind: to win the presidential election. He indeed achieved this ten years later. He had one strategy, the union of the Left, involving an alliance with the communists, in order to overtake and ‘suffocate’ them.

To realise this strategy, Mitterrand pushed the PS in the opposite direction to many other comparable parties of those days, by driving through radical positions (a break from capitalism, mass nationalisation) while successfully presenting the new PS as the party representing the country’s rising classes – in particular, the generation of ‘baby boomers’ who arrived at political maturity in 1968 and made up a new (albeit still patriarchal) middle class.

Mitterrand gathered around himself a new socialist elite made up of representatives of this generation, who took power in the PS under the tutelary shadow of one they quickly nicknamed ‘Tonton’ (Uncle). It is those same officials that we find today in charge of the party and, of course, responsible for its defeat – more so in fact than they were for the defeat of 1993.

The party created in Epinay in 1971, shaped by the bipolar world of the cold war, is a thing of the past. French society and the international context in which it finds itself (one defined by the construction of Europe and globalisation) have fundamentally changed. Even those institutions equipped with the centralist, authoritarian connotations of the Fifth Republic do not seem to be protecting themselves; the crisis of political representation they are trying to contain being so strikingly evident.

The end of the cycle, which opened at Epinay, closed this spring, with the departure of Lionel Jospin, who was less of a reformist than a Mitterrandist. It leaves the Left with more than the challenge of renewing or rethinking party organisation, though this too is vital. The real task is to mark a change in the political paradigm, which starts from the recognition that all our analyses – economic, social, cultural and institutional – are fundamentally bankrupt. It is impossible even to realise the scale of the change that is happening by using theoretical and organisational tools dating back to the 1970s.

The same challenge besets the political personnel. This is evident from the absence of any genuine generational renewal of the party, in particular at the local level – except the few ‘young people’ paraded in the media, rather in the same way that ethnic minorities or women have been paraded for so long. A political paradigm cannot be altered with the same figures in charge. Yet, in France, the people who dominate the media, the economy and the intellectual elite are those born to political consciousness in the years 1960–70, still convinced that they are the holders of the ‘holy grail’: the true meaning and history of the Left.

The cycle of Epinay is also that of the formidable weight of intellectual and cultural ‘leftism’, which dragged down and is still dragging down the French Left, with its contempt for a real relationship between its discourse and its practice, especially in government. This heavy leftist ‘superego’ weighs down the entire Left, even including the most reformist. It was particularly burdensome during the 2002 elections, since it gave Lionel Jospin the illusion that he was a candidate of the ‘left camp’ even though this camp has ceased to exist.

Indeed, what do Arlette Laguiller and Laurent Fabius have in common, other than the fact that they both call themselves ‘of the Left’? This semantic evasion of Mitterrand and his socialist heirs, devoid of any theoretical base, has led to a paradox from which French socialism continues to suffer; that of being one of the most modern examples of the European Left in terms of governmental achievement and the balance between economic efficiency and solidarity, whilst using a vocabulary that is archaic on the level of doctrine and the representation of society.

One of the most striking examples of this paradox is the refusal of the French Left to open up to experiences outside France’s national frontiers, and to recognise their interest (if not their validity) for us. This is especially important as long as many questions and challenges afflict the European Left in common (on public insecurity, for instance).

It is by only by putting this paradox behind it that the French Left, particularly the PS at its core, will be able to play a new part on a European level. It will also be able to mobilise the electorate anew, without taking contradictory elements from others – as this year, when it combined a vision of globalisation from ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens) with a fiscal and security programme from the right.

In short, what we need is an ‘enlightened reformism’ whose sense of reality, based on an extensive knowledge of contemporary economic, social and cultural evolution, will activate the capacity of individuals to imagine – perhaps even to dream.

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