In September, the French Socialist Party took a practical decision freighted with symbolism: It put the party headquarters up for sale.
Situated on Rue de Solferino, some hundred meters from the National Assembly and the iconic Musee d’Orsay, the imposing building had been acquired by the party in 1980, one year before Francois Mitterrand became the first Socialist president of the French Republic.
The decision, a sign of the party’s deep troubles after a crushing election, has been hotly debated in what’s left of the Socialists’ ranks. How has this center-left party, which as recently as 2012 held most of the executive powers in France’s regions and main administrative divisions, and which had a majority in the parliament, managed to lose everything in less than five years? Of all the changes that Emmanuel Macron has brought to the French landscape, the destruction of the Socialist Party is perhaps the most profound.
In the last presidential election, more than 75 percent of voters who call themselves socialist did not vote for Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon. President Emmanuel Macron, by contrast, won 60 percent of his Socialist predecessor’s 2012 voters.
Macron might have thrown the Socialists, in whose government he served, a lifeline. His En Marche movement could have ultimately replaced a worn-out Socialist Party. It was baggage, however, that he didn’t want. In his first steps as president, Macron launched an offensive on the right, choosing a right-wing prime minister and economy ministers, and then taking pride in reforms that the right lacked the courage to accomplish while in power.
This offensive has proved very successful: Six months after his election, around half of the Socialist Party and Republican supporters declare themselves satisfied with his actions so far. Since left-wing supporters are deeply divided in their opinion of Emmanuel Macron, both parties seem paralyzed, unsure whether to support or oppose the new president; their ambivalence makes them inaudible in public debate.
This fracture of the left is hardly new in France: Since 2012, two ideological blocs have progressively been drifting apart, to the point of forming what former Prime Minister Manuel Valls called “two irreconcilable left wings.” One left wing is more liberal in the economic sense, refuses to demonize business, and supports giving entrepreneurs more freedom, while the other left is still very much inspired by the idea of class struggle. One takes a pragmatic approach to immigration and embraces restrictions on immigration; the other feels France has not been faithful to its historic values and should adopt a more open policy toward migrants.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon -- squarely in the second category -- surprised many with his strong showing in the first round of the presidential elections (he garnered over 19 percent of the vote), and has so far positioned himself as Macron’s principal opposition on the left. He is considered by some commentators as well placed to embody the future of the French left -- a left that has found hope in Democrat Bernie Sanders, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and others. However, Melenchon has already twice been a candidate in presidential elections; at 70 in 2022, it is unclear if he would be seen as the face of the future. And his potential heirs lack his political skills, experience and gravitas.
It is also possible that despite some successes, Melenchon’s “France Insoumise” (France Unbowed) may have hit a ceiling. With four political parties competing in opposition, Melenchon needs an increasingly radical platform to differentiate himself. His noise-making may win media attention, but it scares off many French who are tired of a country that blocks change and who see Melenchon as too far to the left to be trusted. This conflict between a radical speech that is necessary to impose itself in the media and the necessity to gain credibility is very hard to manage.
As for the Socialists, the party lost all its big figures in the last election. The Hollande generation was wiped out. The most promising ministers of the next generation, such as Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, were defeated in legislative elections, and are remarkably absent from the debate. Among the Socialist members of parliament, very few new figures have emerged. Moreover, they have lost the trust of many former supporters, who felt betrayed by attempts at labor market reforms.
The lack of leaders, of trust, and of a clear strategy in opposing Macron is not even the main problem for the Socialists: What’s most disturbing is their inability to adapt their political platform from the old statist formulas. Socialist Party grandee Dominique Strauss-Kahn attracted the wrath of the party when he declared recently that the party deserves to disappear for not having been able to modernize its platform over the last 20 years. He’s clearly touched a nerve.
For the time being, the left in France is stuck at a dead end: A growing number of French consider Macron’s politics to be too liberal (more than 70 percent of left-wing voters say he is conducting right-wing policies, according to Harris Interactive); the demand for redistribution is never far from the surface of French politics. However, for the moment, the French left has been silenced by its own divisions and inability to
By Chloe Morin
Chloe Morin is a communications consultant with the Fondation Jean Jaures think tank. -- Ed.