A lost left: the soul of French socialism

Hector Andrieu
5 June 2007

Ségolène Royal's defeat in the French election on 6 May 2007 was the third consecutive failure by a socialist to capture the French presidency. The last to succeed in the attempt was when François Mitterrand won re-election in 1988.

To lose one election may be regarded as a misfortune, but to many French socialists - in particular members of the Parti Socialiste (PS) itself - to lose three looks like carelessness.

The chief critic, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is a former finance minister who calls himself a "social democrat" and has long urged his fellow socialists to ditch old-left ideas. Since the decisive, second-round election night, he has repeatedly blamed party leaders for a "grave defeat" and said a reality-check was overdue. "French people", he has stated, "want the left to resolve problems, not rehash yesterday's solutions."

Strauss-Kahn has not yet mounted an open leadership challenge. Royal, after all, captured 47% of the vote and thus avoided a thrashing at the hands of the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy; she claimed this as a springboard to lead the party into the next battle - the two-round legislative election on 10 and 17 June 2007. But if the PS suffers a meltdown in that vote, Strauss-Kahn's hour may come, and both Royal and party leader François Hollande (who happens to be her partner) could be forced to resign.

The modernisers are busy preparing (come would say plotting) towards such a development, by emphasising the need for radical change. "Our software - both our view of French society and our proposals - no longer reflects reality", says Paris MP Jean-Marie Le Guen. Like other supporters of Strauss-Kahn, he wants the socialists to go back to the drawing-board.

Royal's programme - which advocated mostly old-style, state-driven solutions - "lacked credibility and effectiveness", Le Guen says. Her plan to make the thirty-five-hour working week universal "seemed totally incongruous". He has a point: many working-class people were attracted to Sarkozy's pledge to "work more to earn more" by removing obstacles to overtime.

Le Guen also would like the Socialist Party to accept reforms of public-sector pensions undertaken by the outgoing centre-right government. "We knew we would be unlikely to overturn them and yet we indicated, without sounding really convinced, that we would", he says.

Hector Andrieu is a French journalis:

Also in openDemocracy on French politics:

Henri Astier, "France's revolt against change" (23 March 2006)

Henri Astier, "In praise of French direct democracy"
(13 April 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "French politics: where extremes meet"
(4 December 2006)

Patrice de Beer, "Why is the left so gauche?" (26 February 2007)

Henri Astier, "Jurassic Left: the strange death of France's deuxième gauche"
(26 March 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality" (2 April 2007)

KA Dilday, "France's two worlds"
(8 May 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Sarkozy's rightwing revolution"
(8 May 2007)

The weight of the past

The challengers are hoping to achieve what Germany's Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party / SPD) did at its Bad Godesberg conference in 1959: clearly break with Marxism and reinvent the Parti Socialiste into an electable, centre-left movement. Michel Rocard, a former prime minister who has tried and failed to do this for decades, says the stakes could not be higher. "The French Socialist Party is faced with a very clear choice", he wrote in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps on 9 May 2007. "Either it completely modernises its programme by moving closer to international social democracy or it is doomed to a long, slow decline."

The election results appear to bear out Rocard's alarmism. The core Socialist Party is currently supported by 25% of voters. To its left is a motley crew of Marxists and anti-capitalist groups which together account for no more that 10%. Most might vote for a socialist candidate in a presidential or legislative run-off, but that is not enough to capture power. "The votes the socialists need to grab are in the centre", says Jean-Claude Casanova, editor of the political review Commentaire.

But efforts to reposition the party to capture the middle-ground are bound to face huge resistance. The strategy advocated by Strauss-Kahn, Rocard, and others turns its back on a century-long tradition of "union of the left" - the idea that socialists and communists are united in a common opposition to the forces of reaction and capitalist exploitation. All historic French socialist leaders, from Jean Jaurès to Léon Blum and François Mitterrand waxed lyrical about the "revolution".

The idea that socialists had no enemy on the left and no friends in the centre underpinned François Mitterrand's effort to unify the socialists in the early 1970s. Under him the party became a broad church in which quasi-Marxists, social democrats like Rocard and anything in between gathered. Mitterrand also used the "union of the left" idea to capture the presidency in 1981 and dominate French politics for a decade and a half.

True, it could be argued that France had a strong Communist Party at the time. Today the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF) attracts barely 2% of voters, and keeping strong links with the hard left no longer makes electoral sense. But the emotional appeal of the "united left" idea remains strong among socialists. Most leaders, activists and sympathisers feel that the party would lose its soul if openly endorsed markets, labour flexibility and globalisation.

The modernist magnet

The socialists' reluctance to abandon traditional leftwing values and loyalties was obvious on election night. In Issy-les-Moulineaux, a southern suburb of Paris, a few officials and activists had gathered at the local party office to watch the results on television over sandwiches and cider. They did not hide their indignation when Dominique Strauss-Kahn appeared on television to criticise the current leadership for "failing to create a modern left" along social democratic lines.

"But we are already modern! We are already social democrats!" local party head Joseph Dion exclaimed. For him, Ségolène Royal's cautiously reformist approach, calling for broad "renewal" without going into specifics that might antagonise the traditionalists, is as much upheaval as the party can take. The consensus in Issy was modernisation was that all very well, but it should not come at the risk of breaking up the party.

"We should remain firm on our values", said Lucille Schmid, a socialist hoping to unseat the local pro-Sarkozy incumbent. "We are on the left and must remain ourselves." Schmid's identification with the left rather than the centre is shared by countless party activists - including many supporters of Strauss-Kahn.

I ran into a group of them outside Socialist Party headquarters on election-night, and all were at pains to emphasise their disapproval of centrist leader François Bayrou. Paul Bourges, a 21-year-old student, said Bayrou's emphasis on fiscal restraint was abhorrent to social democrats like himself. "We are Keynesian: we think we the state must play a key role in spurring growth", he said. "Our policies are very different than those of centrists." Fellow student Julien Decadi, 23, said Scandinavian-style - i.e. market-based - social democracy was not on the cards. "What is needed is a social democracy suited to France", he said.

Now resistance within the party is not in itself an insuperable obstacle for reformers. The birth of New Labour in Britain shows that a determined leader can force change if he or she can count on grassroots support. The high number of socialist defections to Bayrou in the first round of the election suggests many rank-and-file members are ready to move to the centre. But do the French Socialists have their Tony Blair?

It is important at this stage to clarify Strauss-Kahn's basic outlook. He seeks to purge the party of Marxism. The French socialists, rebranded as "social democrats", would officially endorse markets and reject the supremacy of the state in economic matters. But that does mean that it would break all ties with the radicals. "France has always had a creative utopian left, and we could have electoral alliances with them", Jean-Marie Le Guen says. Strauss-Kahn and his supporters, in other words, would still be with the Marxists, just not of them.

During the campaign, Strauss-Kahn made it clear that he remained much more open to the left than he was to the centre. Despite what strikes observers as deep similarities between his ideas and those of Bayrou, he expressed irritation when the centrist leader named him - along with some moderate conservatives - among the people Bayrou could work with: "I find it a bit ridiculous that his (Bayrou's) campaign should consist in repeatedly co-opting men whose political line has never been the same as mine", Strauss-Kahn retorted.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn identifies first and foremost with the left and would seek alliances there. In short he is no Tony Blair. He is probably not even Neil Kinnock, who declared war on the (Trotskyist) Militant tendency inside the Labour Party in the late 1980s.

After the next defeat

Yet the stakes in the current battle for the soul of the French Socialist Party are not as high as might appear at first glance. If the Royal/Hollande line prevails, modernisation is likely to advance at a snail's pace, as the socialists continue to paper over deep divisions between the old guard and the modernisers. If Strauss-Kahn wins, the modernisers will kick out the old guard, but continue to talk to them across party lines.

In either case, the result will be a fudge, rather than a clear "Bad Godesberg" moment. Whatever happens, the French socialists will refrain from wholehearted seizing the space on the centre-left occupied by all their European brethren.

Such a strategy could cost them dear in terms of votes. As was the case for Britain's Labour Party, it may take the French mainstream left not three, but four election defeats to clearly choose economic and political pragmatism over ancient doctrinal allegiances.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData