The Guardian view on France’s socialists: getting left behind

2019-09-08 06:05:03


Social democracy is struggling everywhere in Europe. But, as Tolstoy might have said, is unhappy in its own way. Part of this has to do with the dismally low ratings at the end of his five-year term. But internal squabbling, personal feuds and ideological confusion have left their mark too. Ahead of Sunday’s run-off in the French leftwing primaries, designed to choose the Socialists’ candidate for this spring’s presidential election, their future is uncertain.

It is important to understand the party’s distinctive history. Postwar French left politics were shaped by a powerful Communist party. Marxism held sway for decades. In the 1950s, the predecessor of the Parti Socialiste held strongly Atlanticist views and supported the war in Algeria (a position that led to its collapse). In 1971, led a transformation, bringing moderates and marxists under a single banner, and rebranding the party. This paved his way to the French presidency.

Yet the PS never did what Germany’s SPD did in its 1959 Bad Godesberg congress – abandoning class warfare and hostility to capitalism as such, and opting for reformism. Nor is the PS the equivalent of the British Labour party, which grew out of the trade union movement a century ago. Mitterrand eventually moved the party slightly to the centre, as Mr Hollande has also done, but strong cultural differences remain. The PS has rarely embraced a New Labour approach.

In fact, the leading contender in Sunday’s run-off vote, the ex-education minister Benoît Hamon, has compared himself to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Hamon seems all but guaranteed to win ( last weekend with 35% of the vote; anyone paying one euro could cast a ballot). He wants to introduce a basic universal income, a 32-hour week, to legalise cannabis and to tax robots. He is a keen reader of Chantal Mouffe, an ideologue of leftwing populism. His run-off opponent on Sunday is the pro-business former prime minister Manuel Valls, who styles himself as the voice of the serious left in government, but suffers from being associated with Mr Hollande’s lacklustre presidency.

Sunday’s victor is unlikely to win the presidency. France has shifted sharply to the right, not least because of the trauma left by terrorist attacks. of the Front National thinks she can capitalise. She will court traditional leftwing voters by casting herself as a defender of the welfare system, against the “Thatcherite” policies that , the mainstream rightwing candidate, has put forward. Mr Fillon is currently entangled in a scandal over from parliamentary funds, another potential boost for Ms Le Pen.

The wider left is divided too, not just the PS. Three leftwing candidates are in the first round in April: Mr Hamon (assuming he wins on Sunday), the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélanchon, and the centrist , who is polling strongly. A win for Mr Hamon this weekend would be more good news for Mr Macron’s movement, as it might sway Mr Valls’s voters towards him.

Almost half a century after Mitterrand reinvented it, the PS’s survival may be at stake. It is the victim of its own inability to define a clear and agreed platform on , globalisation, labour laws and secularism, all faultlines in the Hamon-Valls contest.

These are dangerous times in French politics. The stakes are high for Europe too. In 2002, similar divisions helped create the conditions in which a far-right candidate (Marine Le Pen’s father) reached the presidential run-off. Now, . France is shaken by terrorism, racked by social tensions, and suffering high unemployment. This feeds deep distrust of politicians. If the left wants to avoid a painful marginalisation, it would do well to rally around the progressive candidate whose reform agenda can command support that transcends the factions.