Parti Socialiste: Squeezed Between Macron and Mélenchon

Philippe Marlière

What would you say is the historic position of the Parti Socialiste in the French political system, and where does it stand after the recent presidential elections?

Well, the Socialist Party in France has always been a very specific, atypical type or brand of social democracy. For a very long time, political scientists would even consider that it’s not social democracy. Socialists themselves like to say, “We are socialists, not social democrats,” meaning by that, “We’re more radical,” that was always, at least until the 1980s, a defining thing.

Why isn’t it historically a social democracy, or a type of it, like in Sweden, Germany or in Britain? I think unlike those countries, there was never any organic link between labour or the trade unions and the party.

The unions and parties of the left, were never historically, if you like, working together. There was always a clear separation. There’s even a charter, the Charter of Amiens, signed in 1906, an old text which really sets up this dramatic separation between the two sides, because simply, the unions did not trust the Socialist Party, which they considered far too parliamentarian, bourgeois, etc.

Historically, it’s a funny type of social democracy then, although, more recently, to be fair, the Socialist Party has finally accepted that it is a kind of social democracy. Probably again, meaning that they’ve toned down, they’ve probably changed politically, ideologically, and they are now reconciled, if you like, with a more reformist nature, but that’s recent. I think it probably dates back to the 1990s.

It’s a kind of party, if you like, which historically has also had always to compete with a strong communist party, that’s something you will encounter when studying other European countries, especially in the south, Italy, Spain, Portugal, possibly Greece.

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A strong communist party, in the French case, that’s absolutely the fact, because it was, until the late 1970s, the main party, the dominant party on the left. The overtaking, in terms of the leading party on the left, only happened in the early 1980s, with the election of Mitterrand.

That is a very specific situation in France whereby socialists always had to compete with a strong, or stronger, party to its left, more radical. The communists had also the advantage over the socialists of having close links with the main union, the CGT, and you have, of course, real roots in the working class, in the labour movement, something the socialists have always struggled to establish.

Historically, in a nutshell, that’s the situation, a situation of political, electoral gaining ground which only started in the 1980s, and which lasted, well, there was a good 30 year run of that, with the socialist having even two presidents elected, first Mitterrand, then Hollande, and they were also in government several times.

This, of course, seems to have come to an end, and, being cautious about that, we don’t know what tomorrow will be, but in the presidential then legislative elections, the socialists lost very heavily.

It seems that’s not the first time the socialists lost heavily. In fact, the whole electoral history of the socialist party is fantastic electoral victories, followed a few years later by amazing slumps and defeats.

This time, you know, political commentators in France are really wondering, because of a number of objective factors, if, that it’s not the end of the party, so a situation which will be more similar to the one that one finds in Greece, with the historic decline of PASOK, or in a number of different countries as well.

Also in Italy it’s very hard to say that the Democratic Party is a truly social democratic party. There are a number of countries in Europe where social democracy is on the wane or has disappeared altogether.

The French situation is in between. The party is losing a lot of members. It’s losing a lot of its leaders. If you think that the two candidates, which made it to the final of the primary election, Benoît Hamon on the left, and Manuel Valls on the right wing of the party, they have both left the party since the election, so that shows that this party is really now in a very poor shape.

That directly links to the next question about strengths and weaknesses of the Parti Socialiste. You already mentioned quite a few weaknesses of the party, not least losing leading politicians since the presidential elections. If you were to be tasked with finding some strengths, where would you see them?

Well, the strengths of the Socialist Party, and that’s not very original because that’s something you will find across the board in Europe with all social democratic parties is that, if you like, the Socialist Party, at least when it was electorally winning elections, was a party which was able to appeal to different constituencies, in terms of class, in terms of gender, in terms of age and generations, in terms of ethnicity.

It’s a party which really managed to be very strong, and get strong support from all kinds of constituencies, that seems also, that’s why we were saying earlier, probably the situation is very serious for the socialist party.

It seems to be a great loss of support amongst voters, amongst constituencies where the socialists used to be very strong, notably the young and people working in the public sector, that’s been the case, at least for the past 20 years.

As for the more popular, more working-class support, the socialists have lost a lot of them, that’s why, one of the reasons why, it is becoming very difficult for socialists to win an election. At least, that’s been the case for the past five years, where they lost all elections, at every echelon: local, regional, national.

It’s because there is very, very little support now coming from the lower middle-class, salaried workers and that, of course, some have gone to the right, some have gone a little bit to Le Pen but essentially, and more recently, to Mélenchon, the radical left, but essentially, there’s a lot of abstention amongst working-class voters.

The strength is that, for a very long, the socialist party was a party with a real dynamic amongst different social backgrounds, which it seems to have lost lately. Also, it was able to rebound at every major electoral defeat.

It seems now, of course, it’s too early to tell, but we’re six months into the Macron presidency, not that the new president is extremely popular. I think a lot of these reforms of the labour market are proving quite unpopular. The situation he has created, and the deep realignment of French politics, and party politics, he has been doing, well, it’s still there. There’s no opposition on his right, and the socialists are nowhere to be seen as a serious opponent to Macron.

Now, the issue is whether they should really oppose Macron, is he really a political opponent, or is he someone we can, in some circumstances, support in some of his reforms? Of course, this is a very blurred image for the socialist party really. They’re really, if you like, squeezed between Macron and Mélenchon, and his new party on the left, so that’s why the future, at least, in the short-, mid-run, seems bleak for it. There’s no recognised leader, members are leaving en masse. Yes, things do not look too good, at the moment, for the Socialist.

If you look at threats and opportunities, and let’s focus on the threats first, in previous conversations about other cases of social democratic parties across Europe and beyond, obviously the rise of populism, right-wing, as well as left-wing populism, has been one of the key threats identified. What’s the situation with this in France with the Parti Socialiste now wedged seemingly between the Front National on the right and the new party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left?

Yes, part of the reshaping of French politics, and that’s a very recent thing, has been that there’s a kind of anti-party mood in France. Of course, France isn’t the only country in Europe, or in the world, which has been experiencing that. The backlash against parties and professional politicians is very strong in France.

Of course, that has benefited a number of movements which, for the most part really, have been, of course, rejecting the very notion of party. They are movements, that’s the case with Mélenchon and the so-called Unbowed France, La France Insoumise, that’s the case, even of Macron. Of course, he’s transformed his movement into a proper, fairly traditional party after his election, but he ran the campaign with a movement.

Something Mélenchon also insists on very much: “We’re not a party. Everyone’s welcome. You can even be a member of another party and join us. Our organisation is transversal, no longer hierarchical, pyramidical, or vertical.” This insistence on new forms of democracy, an organisation against a very corseted way of doing politics within parties, is a very strong thing.

You can even say Le Pen, because Le Pen, it’s a party, okay, but it’s one-person party. It’s Marine Le Pen and then her followers, so that can be seen also. Populism has become the factor, the key thing, the key word.

Any scholar, any student, of populism should look at France very carefully, because it’s really become the new battleground for all forms of populism, left-wing, right-wing, far right-wing, and you might argue to some extent, a centrist type of populism with Macron. In the end, all the ingredients, all the characteristics of populism are met by Macron.

One leader, fairly charismatic, trying to establish a direct relationship with people, with the nation, talk about recapturing sovereignty, or national, or popular democracy in some cases. All that is part of the usual populist narrative. It’s very strong, very buoyant in French politics.

Le Pen and Mélenchon, yes, indeed are the two most vocal proponents of that new trend. Of course, it’s not good news for the socialist party, which remains a traditional party, tries, of course, to up its game, to modernise, to be more open, to take on board new issues.

To be fair, the socialists have always been good, historically, at taking on board new issues, sometimes recycling them, so that they could be absolutely presented in a social democratic, reformist mode to the people. They were very good at doing that with issues such as the environment, feminism, and so on, and so forth.

Now, it seems that they might have run out of steam because, and that’s really the big issue, the central issue, what are the new issues of social democracy, of the French Socialist Party? For a very long time, for the past 30 years, the big issue has been a combination of a social justice agenda together with a strong commitment to European integration that started off, of course, with Mitterrand.

Now, it seems that the debate on Europe, it’s not a straightforward one. You have people still supporting Europe, but you also have, and I’m not talking here about extremes, left and right, you have a fairly mainstream opposition to Europe, not the idea or the concept of Europe. I think still the majority of the French people are attached to it, but to the institutions and the policies implemented on behalf of the EU. There’s a rising opposition to that. It’s becoming mainstream.

A lot of the people used to vote for the socialists, who used to believe in that narrative, “If we get more integration, if we get a closer partnership with, say, Germany, we’ll be better off.” I think that kind of belief, that kind of narrative has not gone. The main party really to support and, so to speak, embody that narrative, was the socialist party. Now, it really adds up another problem for them.

In this kind of difficult landscape, where do you see the opportunities going forward for the Parti Socialiste?

Well, to be fair, I’m really struggling, as we speak today, to find, to end, this conversation on a positive note regarding the socialist party. I’m not saying that the party is doomed and is going to vanish or disappear in the short run. Of course, I’m not a journalist, I’m not a politician, so I ought to be extremely cautious about that, and who knows? The party might make a remarkable comeback.

For sure, it is very weakened today. The reason why it has been weakened, of course, you can argue that the Hollande presidency wasn’t a big success, that a lot of people really resent what he did or didn’t do, notably on the left, which would explain the actual result and why Hollande didn’t run a second time. He simply thought he would lose.

A lot of people, of course, disagreed with the policies of Hollande, found him too new liberal, too right wing, disappointing on a number of issues, including societal issues. Again, that wouldn’t be the first time that the socialists are defeated, and are, for a short period of time, unpopular as a result of their time in government.

Here, again, the malaise, the problem, seems to be deeper than that, because of the realignment of French politics. I think one man has really created a new situation, it’s Macron. Macron is an amazing surprise in the French political game. He shouldn’t have been a candidate, shouldn’t have been elected in the first place. He was there, I think, because of the deep contradictions and problems arising within the socialist party.

At the top level there was Hollande, the government which became towards the end of his presidency extremely unpopular, Hollande being the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic.

There was a gap, there was a void, if you like, which Macron exploited, because this was a man who was totally untested politically, a young man coming from the banking sector, ran alone without the support of any party, probably because people felt that the socialist party now had reached the end of the road, so to speak, people leaving the party en masse.

I think here of a number of extremely important leaders to support Macron in the first instance. Of course, following the victory, you had more people coming to him, creating a new situation whereby the traditional parties of the left and right, normally we had two big parties on the left, communist, socialist, two big parties on the right, a kind of neo-Gaullist, post- neo-Gaullist one, Les Républicains currently, and a more pro-European centrist, Christian Democratic one, the former party of Giscard d’Estaing.

All that has gone, that was a situation for a very long time until the 1990s at least. Four parties, and two on the left and two on the right, both of them on the left and right being of about equal strength, that has gone.

Now, you’ve got a very fragmented political landscape. You no longer have all those parties; the communist party declined but has, of course, continued. You have the rise of a radical left, but who knows where that radical left will go under Mélenchon. You’ve got the far right, despite Le Pen’s poor campaign in the second round, but she’s still there. Les Républicains, they’re weakened as well. The socialists are they really a spent force?

To conclude, the question for the Socialist Party, the question which social democracy has to answer everywhere, which is, how useful is this organisation, or this political force for, say, broadly speaking, salaried workers? How useful? The question of usefulness, because if you’re not useful to your constituencies you will disappear. People will leave you. People will stop voting for you.

Usefulness has to do, of course, with the match between your policy proposals, but also your principles, how you behave when you’re in government, the kinds of personnel running the party. Are they electable or not? Are they popular or not? On all those fronts, very important, the Socialist Party amazingly has to be one of the most important parties of French politics in the past 30 years. It seems to have no answers to any of that, or when it has answers, they’re very unpopular, very discredited. What’s its usefulness?

For the time being, it’s not useful, because you’ve got centrists, the centre-right governing party with Macron. You’ve got a rising radical left, not strong enough to ever compete for government, but strong enough to really capture a strong chunk of the left-wing electorate, which has radicalised, by the way.

Yes, so there’s really very little room for that party, because its social agenda is not strong enough to appeal to left-wing voters. Macron, as a kind of modernist, reformist, pro-business force is also appealing to the right-wing segments of the socialist party voters. It’s really a very bad situation for the socialists. They’ve got very little room for manoeuvre indeed.

Well, it sounds like that, as in other cases, the party is caught between a rock and a hard place?

Yes, that’s correct, sadly.

This is the ninth in a series of SWOT analyses on the future of social democratic parties promoted by SE and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

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