As an antidote to the snide gossip that passes for analysis of French politics at the moment, and in line with our broader reflection on the state of the European left, here are five theses on the French left that we hope might go some way to explaining the present impasse.
1. The French Socialist Party remains haunted by François Mitterrand’s u-turn in 1983-4. Elected on a platform of ‘Keynesianism in one country’, Mitterrand was forced to choose between spending more money and keeping the Franc within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Outsiders were betting he couldn’t do both and they were right. After much discussion with his anti-ERM “visiteurs du soir”, he opted to follow the advice of his finance ministry and give up his Keynesian policies. But instead of declaring a clean break with socialism, Mitterrand presented his decision as an embracing of Europe. Market-friendly policies were introduced through the backdoor without any ideological change at the level of the party. Hence the difficulty for the post-Mitterrand Socialist Party: they have pro-market policies but no new ideology with which to justify them. François Hollande, in his press conference this week, fumbled around with the language of social democracy. ‘Liberal’ in France remains a taboo, particularly on the left. The result is disenchantment all-round. Verbal gestures – such as Hollande’s promise to attack finance and re-moralize capitalism in 2012 – fall flat as they are not accompanied by policies that match the rhetoric. France’s business elites remain frustrated at the drip-drip nature of labour market reform. They know the Socialists have accepted the market but they see little public evidence of it.
2. France’s left-wing parties are not parties of the French working class. In the course of the 1980s, the French Communist Party (PCF) lost its status as the main, mass-based opposition party. Former PCF voters have gone in a number of different directions: many have left politics altogether, a few remained within the party or joined other small extreme left parties, and a large number shifted to the far right and began to vote – or at least sympathise with – the National Front (FN). The shift from the PCF to the FN is one of the most significant political developments for France in recent decades, though it is rarely commented upon. The Socialist Party has retained the support of much of France’s large public sector but it also competes for the urban, middle class vote that has little in common with former card-carrying communists whose life was spent working in French shipyards or fixing French trains. In Italy, Matteo Renzi’s transformation of the Democratic Party is aimed at keeping the public sector vote whilst also winning the support of employees and owners of the country’s small and medium-sized businesses. In France, the Socialist Party has made no such gamble and continues to experience these different constituencies as irreconcilable tensions.
3. The extreme Left in France has recently found a leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Unfortunately for the left, Mélenchon is a narcissist. For all his eloquence and timely put-downs, his obsession is with himself. Rarely can he give an interview without talking about his persecution by the Socialist Party and the socialist-sympathising French media (e.g. here in the revue Charles). The momentum his party gained during the 2012 election campaign was partly a consequence of the widespread anti-finance and anti-elite sentiment, which also helped Hollande win the presidency. Yet Mélenchon was once again overcome by his own ego by deciding to run in the parliamentary elections against Marine Le Pen in Hénin-Baumon, a locality in the North of France, as if his mere presence could lift a town out of its depressed state and magically infuse it with some anti-National Front Mélenchon-inspired rhetoric. He scored poorly (just over 20%; Le Pen won with just under 50% of the vote) and has since been a more marginal figure in French politics.
4. Hollande will not change his spots. Ever. He will not pull out of his back pocket some long-hidden master plan for reforming the French economy. Nor will he take on the banks, or dent a long-standing trend towards growing inequality in France. He is what he has always been: a party apparatchik, clever and determined, but without any big idea or project. His election in 2012 was fortuitous. He became candidate because of the exit from the race of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and won the election because of the strength of anti-Sarkozy sentiment. His own contribution was to hold the line and not make any big mistake. Even then, he only just won. Another week of campaigning could have been enough for Sarkozy to claw back a victory. So there will be no “Mitterrand moment”, as Peter Gumbel recently put it, no grand transformation, no metaphorical rabbit out the hat.
5. Based on a close reading of the 2012 campaign, and an assessment of the state of French society and politics from the perspective of the left, it seemed that there were two historical goals against which the newly elected Socialist President – along with his Socialist majority within the national assembly – could be judged. The first was the goal of growth and social equality: pulling France out of its quagmire, reducing the terribly high levels of unemployment, doing something about the searing injustices of the dual labour market, tackling the decline in competitiveness. On that score, the record is dismal. Hollande failed to renegotiate the Fiscal Compact in favour of growth, as he had promised, and the preference for internal devaluation of prices and wages as a condition for the return of growth within the Eurozone – the ‘sadomonetarist’ agenda – remains central to EU macro-economic policy-making. The second goal was to halt the drift in French politics towards the right – the main-streaming of National Front rhetoric, the social acceptability of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the growing interest in law and order as a solution to France’s social problems. On this, the Socialist government has also failed completely, with its passing of the law on gay marriage a welcome exception that proves the rule (though even there, many defended gay marriage in the name of the family rather than equality). In fact, the most likely successor to Hollande is Manuel Valls, the hardline interior minister who has made much of his war on the Roma population. In his actions and rhetoric, there is little to differentiate Valls from the political right. Less likely to collude with the National Front in an election, the Socialist Party has nevertheless acquiesced in the rightward shift of politics in France. And here we also have to thank Mitterrand, whose tolerance of the National Front was due to his calculation that it would split the right and therefore keep the left in power. Perhaps it is too early to judge the Hollande presidency but so far, on both those counts, it has failed.