Jurassic Left: the strange death of France's "deuxième gauche"

Henri Astier
25 March 2007

The once influential “second left” in France has been eclipsed in the last generation by an older left still wedded to statist solutions. Henri Astier dissects this French exception, and what it means for the presidential election and beyond.

When Ségolène Royal unveiled her "presidential pact" in February 2007, most analysts faulted the French socialist candidate in the April-May election for failing to explain how she would pay for all her promises. But to many outsiders, the main questions raised by the plan lay in the policies themselves, rather than their cost.

The main items in her 100-point manifesto include:

▪ a 20% rise in the national minimum wage to 1,500 euros ($1,980; £1,000)

▪ a sharp increase in unemployment benefits

▪ more state-subsidised jobs

▪ scrapping recent moves to make labour markets more flexible

▪ renationalising utilities

▪ raising taxes on dividends.

Her programme shows no recognition of the general economic consensus accepted by most western governments, left or right, over the past two decades:

▪ there is a trade-off between minimum wages and employment

▪ rigid labour markets kill jobs

▪ generous benefits lead to poverty traps unless combined with a requirement to look for work

▪ competition in the energy sector is the way forward.

As the Economist put it, Royal is "leaning on old socialist policies that have been ditched by almost every other mainstream left-wing party in Europe". Her answer to France's economic problems is ever more state intervention and spending.

Royal may have brought a breath of fresh air to French politics by connecting with voters and outfoxing the socialist "elephants" - as the well-known figures who control the party machine are known - but when pressed on substance, her rhetoric has been decidedly elephantine.

Her pledge to fight "easy profits, lazy profits, rapacious profits, arrogant profits that dream of remaining unchecked" harks back to François Mitterrand's 1971 outburst against "money that corrupts... money that kills, money that ruins, money that rots the very conscience of men". Alone among western centre-left leaders, Royal seems to react with dismay to record profits reported by domestic companies (as is the case for French groups in the CAC-40 index in recent months).

In most other countries, such a radical positioning on the part of a socialist candidate would trigger a challenge from moderates hoping to reclaim the vital centre. But Royal's leftwing critics are not social democrats: they lean even further to the left, and look on her with scorn as a market-friendly libéral. Her programme was above all an attempt to address her challengers' concerns and unify the progressive camp.

Who are those rivals and what do they stand for? Some thoughtful analysts, notably Philippe Raynaud, have spotted various currents in the French radical left. Broadly speaking, they fall into two camps. One is made up of an old guard of communists and Trotskyists, and seeks social salvation in the overthrow of the capitalist order. The other features a newer brand of radicals who are less fixated on revolutionary eschatology than on specific, trendy causes (genetically-modified crops, the homeless, undocumented migrants, and other far-flung victims of multinational oppression). The rallying figure of this second camp is the farmer José Bové.

Yet the difference between the old-style and new-model radicals must not be exaggerated: all agree that capitalism destroys societies and exploits people for the sole benefit of greedy corporations. This is textbook Marxist-Leninism.

It is important to note that the ideological bark of France's hard left is worse than its electoral bite. Opinion polls suggest that all the six official candidates on the non-radical left attract barely 10% of votes put together. Bové, a world celebrity and darling of the French media, is credited with only 1.5% support. The question is: why is a motley crew of marginal groups holding on to a 19th-century ideology able to hold such sway?

Henri Astier is a French journalist

Also by Henri Astier in openDemocracy:

" We want to be French!"
(November 2005)

"France's revolt against change"
(March 2006)

"In praise of French direct democracy "
(April 2006)

"Jean-François Revel (1924-2006): liberty's champion "
( 4 May 2006)

"France's banlieues: year of the locust"
(8 November 2006)

The odd couple, and the others

To address this question, a brief recapitulation of the history of the French left is in order. Unlike Nordic social democrats, French socialists have always been doctrinally wedded to Marxism. The organiser of the founding congress of the "French Section of the Socialist International" in 1905 was Jules Guesde, the man who popularised Marx in France.

The Russian revolution split the socialist camp: in 1920 a majority joined the new Soviet-led Communist International, while others remained committed to revolution by democratic means. The former became known as "communists" and the latter as "socialists". But the two camps disagreed only on the means, not the ends: the overthrow of capitalism remained the stated goal of both. This posed a dilemma for the socialists, who aspired to government. Since full-blooded revolution was an electoral non-starter, they had to choose between doctrinal purity and their commitment to democracy.

The French socialists never resolved that dilemma. They chose to muddy the waters by staying rhetorically committed to scrapping capitalism while shrinking from going all the way while in power - and trusting voters to understand they were responsible enough not to match their words with deeds. They never explicitly rejected Marxism and embraced a market-based system (as did Germany's social democrats in 1959 and Britain's Labour Party between the mid-1980s and 1994).

It must be must borne in mind, however, that for most of the 20th century the socialist-communist odd couple did not exercise a duopoly on the French left. For progressives who were put off by Marxist talk, there was an alternative, which came to be known as the deuxième gauche (second left).

This tradition was long embodied by the Radical Party - very much a misnomer for a moderate group. The "radicals" dominated the mainstream left until the middle of the 20th century. Party leaders included such major statesmen as Georges Clemenceau, Joseph Caillaux and Édouard Herriot. The heyday of the second left was the tenure of the iconic prime minister Pierre Mendès France in the mid-1950s.

Mendès France did have political heirs - notably Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Michel Rocard. But neither was able to keep the tradition alive. In the 1970s Servan-Schreiber, a former amanuensis of Mendès France, took a rump Radical Party towards the centre-right, with which it eventually merged; Rocard's Parti Socialiste Unifié drifted in the opposite direction, and was last seen on the fringes of the far left in the late 1980s. The deuxième gauche, in short, has long ceased to exist as a distinct political movement.

Before looking into the possible causes of death, its main features are worth stressing:

▪ it was firmly on the left. Despite accusations of conservatism, due to its opposition to state control of the economy and other Marxist tenets, the movement always saw itself as a mainstay of the progressive camp. It opposed conservatism and authoritarianism. In the 1950s it hoped to effect responsible, British-style decolonisation - but was not given a chance owing to government instability under the fourth republic

▪ a pragmatic, non-sectarian approach. Radical leaders worked with politicians of all political stripes. Mendès France included Christian democrats and supporters of General de Gaulle in his cabinet. The "second left" never viewed politics as a struggle between irreconcilable enemies, but as a forum for dialogue

▪ moral rectitude. The movement's taste for compromise has often led to charges of opportunism. The old Radical Party may have been vulnerable to the charge, but Mendès France embodied a principled approach: you must mean what you say and say what you mean. This entailed a rejection of revolutionary posturing: voters should be treated as adults and be told clearly what they are voting for.

So why did Mendésisme die? Why do French socialists still embrace ideas their European brethren have abandoned?

A void at the centre

There can be two main reasons for this: either leftwing voters have deserted the centre - in which case French political leaders just followed a popular leftward movement; or the centre-left electorate is still there but is no longer represented - in which case the leaders took their cue from each other rather than from voters.

There is something to be said for the first possibility. Compared with other countries, the French political spectrum appears extraordinarily off-centre. No one bats an eyelid when a leading conservative calls markets "the law of the jungle" (as did former prime minister Édouard Balladur) or says economic liberalism is about to follow communism into the dustbin of history (as did current president, Jacques Chirac). The programme of the main rightwing candidate in the April-May election, Nicolas Sarkozy, is somewhat to the left of Britain's "new" Labour.

To get an idea of where France's political centre of gravity lies, consider the views of people close to the centrist candidate François Bayrou. In 2006 one of his MPs - whom Bayrou supported - staged a hunger-strike over a Japanese firm's plan to leave his district (the firm relented). Bayrou is running on a broadly social-democratic programme. But one of his main economic advisers is Jean Peyrelevade, a former socialist aide who has written a book entitled Total Capitalism, an attack on the United States-dominated financial markets. More recently, Peyrelevade wrote in Le Monde that capitalism was "unsustainable, because it is incompatible with the ecological balance of the globe, and because it generates excessive inequalities both between nations and within each country". With centrists like these, no wonder France's socialists sound red in tooth and claw.

So it is conceivable that moderates have been swept away by a current that has taken the whole electorate towards the left. But now let's examine the alternative explanation: that the social-democratic centre still survives somewhere in the depths of French opinion but is not being represented. Deserting a key constituency sounds like a perverse thing for politicians to do, but history is full of leaders putting ideology before self-interest. This, I believe, is the more likely explanation for the French exception in leftwing politics.

Throughout the 1960s the centre-left was doing well. It did not manage to unseat General de Gaulle in the 1965 election, though it gave him a bloody nose under the skilful stewardship of moderate socialist leader François Mitterrand. But in the wake of the 1968 uprising, Mitterrand changed tack. To keep up what he believed was the spirit of the times, he officially called for a "break with capitalist society" during the launch of his new-model Parti Socialiste in 1971. A year later he forged an alliance with France's hardline Parti Communiste Francais (PCF), which resulted in a common, Marxist-inspired platform.

The strategy is widely seen as a masterstroke that ultimately led Mitterrand to the presidency in 1981 and the communists to near-extinction. This interpretation is highly dubious. It took nine years for Mitterrand's "union of the left" to achieve power, and by then it wasn't much of a union. All the elections in which socialists and communists went into battle together (legislative elections in 1973 and 1978, a presidential election in 1974) were lost to a tired right that had been in power since 1958! When the left finally won in 1981, the alliance with the communists had broken down.

The lesson seemed clear: many French people were uneasy voting for the socialists if the communists were part of the package; as soon as the communists were weak enough and the alliance was severed, enough voters felt comfortable giving the socialists a chance - enough voters, in fact, to make the difference between defeat and victory.

But that was not the conclusion drawn by Mitterrand once he was elected president. Although support for the communists had plummeted, he chose to renew the alliance and gave the PCF four ministries (including transport and health). Mitterrand did not have to do that: he had made no campaign pledge to govern with the PCF, and the socialists had won a huge parliamentary majority of their own. Mitterrand then rushed through a bold, anti-capitalist programme most voters had assumed would be watered down. Major industries, as well as banking and insurance groups were nationalised in an avowed drive to overthrow the existing order and transfer the main levers of the economy to the state. This heady course lasted two years, until a currency crisis and the need to remain within the European Community forced Mitterrand to change direction in 1983.

From this painful experience, Mitterrand drew a conclusion that destroyed what remained of the "second left": if root-and-branch change was impossible, the status quo had to be preserved. Any type of change now seemed fraught with danger. The slogan of Mitterrand Mark II for the 1988 campaign was nini ("neither, nor"), as his pledge to refrain from both nationalisations and privatisations became known.

Under the "cohabitation" with a conservative cabinet between 1986 and 1988, he did his best to resist a timid privatisation effort. Once re-elected in 1988 Mitterrand turned on the centre-left. He gave the kiss of death to Michel Rocard, the last of the great Mendésistes, by making him prime minister. Rocard did manage to steer through limited reforms. But by the time he was sacked in 1991 - after a wearing, three-year war of attrition with his president - he was politically broken and his pro-market, social-democratic reform agenda was dead and buried.

Mitterrand entrenched a "revolution or nothing" attitude that still pervades French politics. Some socialist leaders do subscribe to reform - but never to the same extent as their foreign counterparts, and even then such leaders (like Dominique Strauss-Kahn) are quickly marginalised.

The intellectuals' sign-language

The moderate left, it seems, was not deserted by the French people, but by political leaders. This, of course, is difficult to verify in the absence of a latter-day Mendès France standing before voters and testing the hypothesis. But a few clues lend credence to it. First, a recent poll indicated that 71% of French people would favour a national-unity government with figures from both the right and the left - a sign that the centre is alive and well. This is further confirmed by the surge in popularity of François Bayrou - who, despite a stabilisation in his opinion-poll ratings, is still (at the time of writing) credited with 20% support.

Perhaps the clearest sign that the centre-left is alive and well in French society is its strength in the intelligentsia. Moderate liberals may have been wiped off the political map, but they are represented in the "republic of letters" by such prominent figures as Alain Finkielkraut, André Glucksmann, Pascal Bruckner, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Minc and Max Gallo. They may not all be Blairites, but they embody the general values of the deuxième gauche: a preference for gradual change over revolution, a reluctance to frame political issues in black-and-white terms, an abhorrence of Marxist absolutism, and a passionate attachment to human rights.

If their opinions were irrelevant, they would not sell so many books or get the airing they receive in the media - hardly a week goes by without a discussion on French TV or in the press of their views on the campaign. Their views are particularly interesting, given the lack of obvious candidates representing their brand of liberalism.

These views are remarkably dispersed, reflecting their unease and the mismatch between citizens and politicians. Levy - no doubt reflecting the choice of many voters - is sticking with his political family, the mainstream left, and despite reservations will give Royal the benefit of the doubt. Some, like the intellectual chat-show host Philippe Meyer or the historian Jean-Pierre Riou, have gone for Bayrou. Alain Finkielkraut refuses to endorse any candidate publicly, but his disenchantment with the choice on the left. Most controversially, Glucksmann, Gallo, and Bruckner have come out in favour of the centre-right frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy as the best hope for reform and a human-rights-driven foreign policy.

This choice has triggered a furious backlash from the intellectual left. For many, Glucksmann and his treacherous ilk have become born-again conservatives. One writer, in a vitriolic article in Le Monde, recalled Glucksmann's Maoist youth and wrote that it was natural for him to support a "strong man" like Sarkozy. The departing interior minister was described as a quasi-fascist who sends "his policemen to seize dark-skinned children from classrooms". The left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur asked in a cover story: "Are intellectuals turning right?" The paper's answer was summed up by a quote from a sociologist who railed against Glucksmann et al, calling them "humanist reactionaries".

What lies behind such denunciations is the view - common during the "age of extremes" that was the 20th century - that politics as a clash between good and evil. During a televised debate, the historian Benjamin Stora told a livid Finkielkraut that people had to choose between "the side of the downtrodden" and that of "ruthless capitalism". In a world divided between pure victims and ruthless oppressors, the opponent is not intellectually misguided but morally tainted. He does not need to be argued with, since his ideas cannot be held in good faith, but exposed.

Also in openDemocracy, a series of columns by Patrice de Beer on France’s election campaign, including:

"Ségolène Royal: the power of difference"
( November 2006)

"French politics: where extremes meet"
(4 December 2006)

"Nicolas Sarkozy, the American candidate"
(20 December 2006)

"France’s immigration politics"
(12 February 2006)

"Why is the left so gauche?"
(26 February 2007)

"François Bayrou, the extreme centre’s champion"
(12 March 2007)

This mindset has a venerable history in France. During the revolution the Jacobins demonised their opponents. In the 1950s the communists and their allies resorted to slander and character assassination against Victor Kravchenko, Czeslaw Milosz, Albert Camus, and other critics of the Soviet Union.

"For my part", Finkielkraut replied to Stora during the debate, "I left the 20th century with a visceral mistrust of dualistic thinking. If you say that on the one side are the wretched of the earth and on the other those who exploit them, what you have is a tale for children that can turn into a horror film. What I am arguing for is something that guards us against this ever-resurgent totalitarian temptation."

Of course, modern progressives are not trying to liquidate Finkielkraut or Glucksmann. What they want is to purge them from the left. By saying "You have defected to the reactionary camp and do not belong here", they are trying to do to the intellectual community what Mitterrand did in to politics a generation ago: place the centre beyond the pale. The last remaining stronghold of the deuxième gauche - the anti-totalitarian movement that emerged in France in the 1970s - is under assault from the radicals who are seeking an ideological monopoly on the left.

Is the attempt likely to succeed? In the long term, probably not, for two reasons. First, unlike voters, writers speak for themselves. The republic of letters is a direct democracy: if a trend exists, it will get an airing. Second, France's centre-left thinkers are in tune with the main international currents of liberal thinking. Glucksmann, Finkielkraut et al have more admirers abroad than do their radical foes such as Benjamin Stora or Michel Onfray, and few foreigners would regard them as reactionaries.

The French, inward-looking though they may be, are not totally cut off from the rest of the world. This suggests that the deuxième gauche will one day rise from its ashes. In the short term, however, it has lost the political battle and is having to fight for its intellectual life

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