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State of the Left - France

Walking a fine line: Hollande and the French left

Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi - 08 March 2016

France's incumbent president faces an ever more reduced political space at the centre ground of French politics

French president François Hollande is seeking to reconcile two opposing goals: on the one hand, he must rebuild the unity of the French left to stand any chance of re-election in 2017; on the other, he must press home his social-liberal agenda to curb France’s rising unemployment, which risks alienating potential coalition partners to the left of the Socialist party (PS).

Rebuilding the union of the left

The left must present a united front to secure its place in what promises to be a highly competitive presidential runoff in 2017. Recent polls have suggested the outgoing president could be beaten into third place by Marine Le Pen. As Hollande’s approval ratings fell back to their 2015 nadir in February, despite the ‘boost’ after the November terror attacks, there appears to be a growing consensus among parties of the left to push for a presidential primary. The principle has been endorsed by the PS itself, the Greens and the Communists. There is equally growing pressure on the Parti de Gauche’s leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to renounce his own presidential bid, which could be fatal to the left next year.

The recent government reshuffle has confirmed the need for Hollande to build bridges with future coalition partners. The new cabinet includes Green leader Emmanuelle Cosse and a number of former EELV members such as Barbara Pompili and Jean-Vincent Placé who left the party over disagreement with its radical anti-PS stance in October. New entrants also include Jean-Michel Baylet – together with the promotion of Annick Girardin – to ensure presence of the left Radicals in the future presidential majority, vital after former party leader Christiane Taubira’s resignation from the Ministry of Justice last month. However, the appointment of Jean-Jacques Urvoas, an ally of the more conservative prime minister Manuel Valls, while not a direct contrast with the liberal Taubira, is unlikely to be popular with the radical wing.

Both the change of cabinet and the call for an open, pluralist primary on the left barely hide the tensions between the PS and its allies. As made crystal clear by Manuel Valls, who opposes the idea of a primary, Hollande should be the ‘natural candidate’ of the left in next year’s presidential. The PS has officially agreed to the principle of a primary only in order to humour its flanking parties and show respect for pluralism in the French left, while simultaneously buying enough time for Hollande to prepare for his re-election bid. Outside the PS, those who support the primary mostly want to promote an alternative candidate from the more radical wing of the mainstream left, or even perhaps from within civil society, with the names of the economist Thomas Piketty and former environmentalist leader Nicolas Hulot being mentioned.

Social liberal reform and the national security agenda

There are political barriers to Hollande’s attempt to form a successful presidential coalition within this increasingly fragmented left. Last month, Hollande’s controversial proposal to amend the constitution to strip French terrorists of their dual nationality was adopted by a narrow vote in the national assembly, with support from about half of the mainstream right Republicans and nearly all members of the centre-right UDI, but with opposition from 92 socialist MPs, as well as the ecologists and the communists. The revolt of socialist MPs continued on 10 February as 83 members voted against the collective package of measures, including the state of emergency amendments, as did most of EELV and the Front de Gauche, raising some doubts about the future of the reform.

Since November 2015, Manuel Valls has also taken a hard stance on the current EU migration crisis. On the fringes of a security meeting in Munich last month, he opposed Angela Merkel’s permanent relocation mechanism, suggesting that Europe should take no more refugees. This shift to the right was confirmed by Urvoas’s appointment to the justice ministry. The uncompromising line of the executive might appear to be largely rhetorical, however, as revealed in the new immigration law adopted on 18 February, to improve the rights of foreigners living in France. Not only has the new bill angered the rightwing opposition, which has promised to repeal it, but also it could send a contradictory message to the vast swathes of French voters who currently fear immigration.

A second, more significant barrier concerns the executive’s supply-side economic agenda. Since 2014, Hollande has made drastic economic policy U-turns, taking a social-liberal route. A first step was the ‘responsibility pact’ in January 2014, which announced €40bn in tax cuts for business over the next three years. In August, the appointment of former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron as minister of the economy confirmed the strategic pro-business and market reform agenda of the government. After declaring a state of ‘economic emergency’ last January, Hollande unveiled a €2bn plan to support firms taking on new employees in the lower wage band, combined with a massive vocational training programme for long-term job seekers.

The new draft labour bill launched last month by labour minister Myriam El Khomri proposed taking things one step further towards relaxing French employment legislation and lifting the cap on the 35-hour working week, which has been a totem for the left since the Jospin government of 1997-2002. Emulating the reform agenda pushed by SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Germany in the early 2000s, the new bill promised also to simplify the existing labour code and to allow for more flexibility through social negotiation.

What is considered by many as Hollande’s final – arguably desperate – attempt to tackle unemployment has caused outrage amongst parties of the left, trade unions and within the ranks of the PS, casting another shadow over Hollande’s ability to rally the whole left come 2017. Most damagingly, for former first secretary Martine Aubry and the co-authors of an open letter to the prime minister, it was the last straw (‘Trop, c’est trop!’) from a government moving away from its socialist principles. The threat of overt party conflict, as well as mass demonstrations, has led to the government delaying the bill, to give it time to try to appease unions and much of its own membership with amendments.

While such hesitation over reform would always provide ammunition for the opposition, any indication of uncertainty over its social liberal agenda plays particularly to the right in dominating the centre ground.  As Alain Juppé, a more centrist rightwing contender for the Republican primary in November, is currently gaining political momentum, the left also risks losing the possibility of raising the red flag of a presidential return by Nicolas Sarkozy. President Hollande is confronting an ever more reduced political space at the centre ground of French politics, outflanked by both the LR on his right and angered ecologist and communist partners to his left.

Jocelyn Evans is professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. Gilles Ivaldi is a CNRS researcher in Political Science at the University of Nice. Together they write the 500Signatures blog on French politics an elections

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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