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The French left and 2012

The ending of the legal case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves France’s socialists still looking for a strategy - and a candidate - able to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. They have a tough legacy to overcome, says Patrice de Beer.
Patrice de Beer
24 August 2011

The French left - or, more precisely, its different shades - is seeking to get into battle-order for the presidential elections in April-May 2012, when it will face the incumbent conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy (to be followed by legislative elections in June). It’s true that for tactical reasons, Sarkozy has still to confirm officially that he will stand for another term; but it is most unlikely that he will retreat from a fight he would relish.

The prospect is that it will be less the battle of ideas than France needs, since both “Sarko” and his rivals - on present form, at least - will offer weary French voters more or less the same recipes as in the past. Yet both sides will also seek to convince people that left and right are still far apart and offer distinct messages. The main responsibility on the left for articulating a clear strategy falls to the Parti Socialiste (PS), which is less ideologically rigid than it used to be it yet remains much more social-minded than the increasingly conservative right.

The PS remains as dominant on its side as its formidable counterpart the Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle (UMP) does on the right; opinion-polls give the two main parties each over a quarter of votes. But in the French electoral system, where the president is chosen after a two-round contest, every vote counts from the outset in order to guarantee that a contender qualifies for the second round. The awareness of this reality is even more acute on the left since the trauma of 2002, when the traditional left-right polarity was spoiled by a surge in support for the extreme-right Front National (FN) candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, leaving socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the cold.

The PS, even assuming that the fallout of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal will have greatly receded by the time of the election, will have a hard job to ensure that Nicolas Sarkozy becomes a one-term president. Yet the party, and the left in general, has in principle more than enough evidence to make a strong case for change (see "France: president's defeat, polity's crisis", 13 April 2010).

A social chasm

The French have suffered greatly from the financial crisis since 2007, whose effects have been reinforced by an ultra-liberal policy that has seen the country’s debt increase over a decade from 59% to 82% of GDP (in 2010). The starkest description of France's woes was made in March 2011 by the former UMP minister Jean-Paul Delevoye - a conservative, though (like many politicians from France’s north) with a social-Christian touch. Delevoye’s independence of mind found little favour with Sarko, who dismissed him from the post of France’s ombudsman and then revamped the post into a catch-all “defender of the rights” and appointed a harmless UMP stalwart as his replacement.

Delevoye's valedictory report, citing many cases of individual tragedy, describes a country on the verge of “burnout” and a people that has lost faith in republican institutions and no longer trusts politicians (“They feel alienated, powerless when dealing with a bureaucracy considered by most as unfair and incomprehensible”). Citizenship, the report says, has become an empty word, as people abstain at elections in vast numbers as a way to express their feeling towards an unfair society; Delevoye - who on 18 August 2011 assumed a new role as president of the Conseil économique, social et environnemental (Cese) - concludes that “France is in the process of imploding, as social tensions and pressures intensify”.

Such a vivid analysis of France's woes could - or should - have been written from the left. It was not. But neither are there comprehensive or far-reaching solutions to hand which offer a reasonable hope that things will change for the better (see "Sarkozyland: France's inward politics", 16 June 2009).

Since 2002, both main parties have striven to avoid a repeat of that year’s “earthquake”: the UMP by subduing the smaller right and centre-right parties and by assimilating the FN platform’s racial and xenophobic proposals, the PS by maximising its first-round support while striking a deal for the second with the greens (Europe Ecologie - Les Verts / EELV). The recent marriage of convenience between the waning communists (PCF) and the new Parti de Gauche (PG) - modelled on Germany’s Linkspartei - offers more room for such tactical measures, if less for bold ideas.

A party fate

Amid such calculations, the identity of the left’s presidential candidate remains uncertain. There are six figures in the race, due to be settled by a two-round vote in October; but the winner will almost certainly be one of the frontrunners: the PS’s former leader François Hollande or its current head and mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry.

Until the then IMF director-general Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was embroiled in scandal in New York, he was seen as the candidate most likely to regain power for the left after three consecutive routs. Even after the dropping of charges against him, his political recovery is not being entirely ruled out (see Jennifer Thompson, "Poll hope still seen for Strauss-Kahn", Financial Times, 23 August 2011). Among the existing declared candidates, Sarko - albeit he has recovered a little from unprecedented lows in the opinion-polls - should present a beatable target; most current surveys show that he would lose to Hollande (57%-43%) and Aubry (53%-47%).

Yet polls are easier to fight than elections - and any winning candidate needs to draw together a French left that has, since Francois Mitterrand retired in 1995, been hopelessly divided into a messy cocktail of green, pink red: that is, a PS candidate, one or two greens, and several far-left/Trotskyist aspirants (the most popular of whom, the eternal postman Olivier Besancenot, has announced that he would not be in the contest). The PS itself, moreover, is an uneasy coalition of conflicting personalities and “streams” that sometimes prefer the right to win than a rival “comrade” (as in 2007, when DSK stabbed Ségolène Royal in the back).

Several such streams have been built around a redder-than-you platform. That of Aubry, elected as Hollande’s successor in 2008 by a paper-thin majority over Royal in a dubious vote, is one; she had DSK’s backing, secured in the so-called “Marrakech pact” (DSK owns a mansion there). Now that her mentor looks out of the race, she is widely seen as his proxy (see "France's socialist crack-up", 17 December 2008).

Martine Aubry is also the choice of all those distrustful of Francois Hollande, who include most of the PS’s left and its apparatchiks. Yet Hollande looks the most substantial candidate: a formidable debater with the courage to reject demagogic social or economic promises, who advocates a tight deficit-reduction policy coupled with a reform of the tax system to make it more efficient and less unequal. True, he also led a near-moribund PS for more than a decade, while Aubry is architect of France’s thirty-five-hour week (now regarded by Sarkozy as anathema). But politics is also direction and movement as well as a past record. 

Whoever the party members select will have a tough job. In some respects the party has so far coped well with the DSK debacle. It now appears that sentiment both in the PS and among the public is against him standing for the presidency, though less clear over any return to government in future (revelations about DSK’s lavish tastes in New York restaurants may have helped harden attitudes) (see "The scandal of France: power and shame", 8 June 2011).

But the PS already has big inner-party problems to solve: local vote-buying, fraud or embezzlement affaires (as in the Marseilles region) have damaged the image of a party which has already lost millions of workers’ votes to the UMP and FN. It is in sociological terms now a party of the  middle classes, civil servants and bobos (“bourgeois-bohemians”) with hardly any working-class MPs; some of its intellectuals, such as from the innovative think-tank Terra Nova, have even proposed discarding its traditional base (now underperforming according to political-marketing criteria) and concentrating on higher-scale (and more rewarding) centrist voters. The risk of a final loss of the party’s soul must be factored in.

A political task

The PS has long forgotten the example of François Mitterrand's strong leadership and never learned from Britain’s Labour Party the value of internal discipline. The result is that public opinion - including on the left - is sick of its internal bickering, amplified by the media as well as by Sarko’s propagandists. Voters want a credible alternative after Sarkozy's five gloomy years, long-term ideas to lift France from the present crisis, and realistic answers to their worries about the dark sides of globalisation. They do not want more name-calling, demagogy, and petites phrases among rivals.

Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the campaign for 2012 will see French politicians rediscover modesty, step down from their gilded pedestals of privilege and immunity that make the noble art of politics look dirty to everyday people, and refuse to make promises they know they can't uphold. The latter include the fantasy of démondialisation raised by the PS’s Arnaud Montebourg and the PG’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon - a withdrawal from the world whose left-wing populism is as unrealistic as the FN’s right-wing version (which imagines a great wall to protect white France from immigrants, Europe, the euro and plutocratic market forces).

For many years, France claimed with some pride to have “the stupidest right in the world”. Its left has in recent years run the right close in faction-fighting, fossilised thinking, and a lack of boldness. It has eight months to put aside that record and find a new course.

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