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State of the Left - France

The disintegration of the French left

Gérard Grunberg - 16 September 2015

The left’s failings in France are symptomatic of a wider crisis facing social democracy which can only be addressed by confronting the challenges of the 21st century

In this early September, what is most striking is the rapid disintegration of the French left. The split between the Socialist party (PS) and the Greens (EELV) is now official. The ecologists increasingly flirt with the far-left under the influence of Cécile Duflot. They are about to make alliances with them at the regional elections in December, especially in the emblematic northern region where Socialist power is under threat. The PS is ruined by deep internal disagreements in terms of economic policy as the left of the party, and the leadership itself to a lesser extent, disagree with the “pact of responsibility” establishing a partnership between Manuel Valls’s government and business. At the PS summer conference in La Rochelle at the end of August, the prime minister scored points to the extent that he does not appear as a minority leader in his own party any longer. However, his leadership attracts a lot of rejection and could potentially lead to a split.

The EELV are split and have lost their compass. Two of their leaders (Francois du Rugy and Jean-Vincent Placé) have just left the party which they accuse of drifting to the far-left. There is no guarantee that EELV members follow Cécile Duflot in her attempt to team up with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the iconic head of the Front de Gauche. With this strategy, the ecological movement is committing no less than political suicide. As for the Front de Gauche itself, the relationship between Mélenchon and its main component, the Communist party, has deteriorated to the extent that the latter are considering presenting a candidate against the former at the 2017 presidential election.

With Manuel Valls marking an exception, the fatigue of holding power is visible throughout the left. A demoralised and fatalistic PS seems almost resigned to defeat in 2017 and to be factoring it in already, ready for the cure of opposition. Opinion polls are bad: voting intentions for all leftwing forces do not exceed a third of the electorate, and François Hollande’s personal ratings are stuck at an exceptionally low level. Obviously, the failure to bring unemployment down contributes considerably to this poor showing.

Some voices hoped that the victory of Syriza in Greece and the success of Podemos in Spain would pave the way to a reconfiguration of the European left. It would have become possible to fight effectively against German ‘diktats’ and bring austerity policies to an end. However, the developments of the Greek crisis have simply forced the French left to consider a tension similar to its own: has Alexis Tsipras betrayed or has he taken a reasonable decision?

Also, the refugee crisis represents a major challenge to all leftwing parties and particularly to a PS torn between its humanist values and the wider public, which is much more reluctant to welcoming migrants than in Germany. This question will undoubtedly feature highly during the next presidential campaign and the PS will find it difficult to have a clear stance.

To widen the scope, the crisis of the French left and its strategic hesitations reflect the predicament of European social democracy today. In several parties of this political family, the temptation of withdrawal is visible, as if they were not able to manage the contradictions between their historical identity and the constraints on government today. As Denis McShane wrote recently about the Labour party, it is “a party of the 20th century that does not know how to exist in the 21st century […] Labour is experiencing today what other old leftwing parties have been experiencing: it is struggling to find a way to power, to find a raison d’être in a new economic and social environment”. This applies to the PS as to many others.

The PS hesitates between giving priority to government and adopting an attitude of protest. At a time when social democratic parties do not have much to redistribute in exchange for the acceptation of market economy and free trade, and while the right is hegemonic in most countries, it would be tempting to become junior coalition partners of the right rather than staying opposition parties in their own right. Yet such an option would be fatal in the long run. In the 20th century social democracy stayed powerful only because it became a force for government. To believe that it could be powerful again in the 21st century while refusing to confront the very challenges of our time risks dragging it into the same path of irrelevance that communism eventually faced – a slow death.

Gérard Grunberg is an associate researcher at the Centre d’études européennes (CEE), Sciences Po Paris

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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