The once-dominant Socialist Party has polled a dismal two percent approval of voters in a recent survey, showing how far the left has lost its credibility ahead of upcoming April elections.
France has long been the land of rebellions and profound political transformations since the 1789 Revolution, which not only ousted the country’s monarchy but also inspired many nations around the world to establish their own nation-states based on popular mandate.
The French Revolution was also crucial for the emergence of the new political terminology of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ that defined different political affiliations based on the sitting order in the National Assembly.
Pro-monarchy deputies, sitting down to the right of the King’s chair, were called right-wing while anti-monarchy parliamentarians, who chose to take up positions on the left side of the assembly, became leftists. In time, the left came to be usually associated with forces defending change while the right is seen as the conservative defender of political status quo.
But in current France, the birthplace of the left-right division, the left is at a loss on how to transform the country and give hope for change in the face of rising far-right and the dominance of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist populist policies as the April presidential elections are approaching.
Francois Gemenne, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Liège in Belgium, has no surprises about the French left’s declining pattern because he thinks that “France is fundamentally rather a conservative country. Therefore, the left has never been strong in France.”
Ten years after the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, a general, became the country’s de facto leader and later declared himself the emperor. During WWII, under Nazi occupation, another general, Charles de Gaulle, emerged as the leading French resistance leader. After the war, de Gaulle also dominated the country’s political landscape as a conservative president.
Due to the political weakness of the left, even when they came to power, “they are doomed to disappoint and to apply the most centrist and more right-wing programmes,” Gemenne tells TRT World, giving the example of Francois Hollande, the former Socialist leader.
“Many voters of the left are really kind of disappointed with the presidency of Hollande and consider that he betrayed the values of the left,” says the political scientist, leading many leftists to think that the Socialist Party is not a real left. Hollande’s right-wing domestic policies after the 2015 terrorist attacks alienated many leftists as corruption scandals rocked his presidency.
Under the neo-liberal order, the Socialist Party’s increasing ties with pro-business circles have also alienated many traditional voters of the party, according to Murat Yigit, an academic at the Istanbul Commerce University, who was educated in France.
Prior to Hollande's presidency, in 2011, “the Socialists even considered that they could nominate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF president, as their presidential candidate,” Yigit tells TRT World. Many leftists usually find IMF policies incompatible with their political views. Strauss-Kahn withdrew from the race after a sex scandal.
Beyond all measures, Hollande’s failed presidency became a markstone for the collapse of the party, leading many leftists to either back Macron or move to the extreme left, according to Gemenne. This political scene left the Socialist Party in limbo, making the left more divided than ever, he adds.
Macron, a senior adviser to Hollande and the minister of finance under the previous Socialist government, was a former Socialist Party member whose defection from the party and move to the centre in 2016 also damaged the left’s prospects in a great deal.
“What is interesting is that Macron himself comes from the left. But what Macron did was basically completely dismantle the Socialist Party,” Gemenne observes, referring to the French politician’s move to form a centralist bloc to face the strengthening far-right.
With the Socialists’ political base being badly weakened, “there is no blank space left on the left because in France the left has been always organised around the Socialist Party until now”, according to the professor.
But what happened to the large base of the Socialist Party?
“Certainly, part of them is being taken over by Macron himself and another part is being taken over by the extreme left. If you look at the manifesto of Jean-Luc Melenchon, it’s pretty similar to the manifesto of Francois Mitterrand when he won the elections in 1989,” says Gemenne, referring to the late Socialist leader and the former president.
Melenchon, a far-left candidate who wants to leave NATO, is a former Socialist minister, but he also left the party in 2008 like Macron but for different reasons—to form a leftist bloc, including communists. In 2016, he formed "France Unbowed". At the moment, he is the most powerful leftist candidate, moving up to third place in recent polls with a two-digit approval rating.
Divided left’s soul-searching
Much to the dismay of many leftists, a divided left is still seeking to find its own groove in a rising radical star, the 70-year-old Melenchon.
He received a big endorsement from Segelone Royal, a prominent leftist figure and the former presidential candidate for the Socialist Party. “It is obvious that the only ‘useful’ vote on the left is the Mélenchon vote,” Royal said last month, angering the current Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hidalgo, another female politician like Royal. Hidalgo is now Paris’ mayor.
“If I were in her place, I’d give up,” Royal added, referring to Hidalgo, who receives less than five percent support, according to polls. While Hidalgo is officially the party’s presidential candidate, she recently lost an unofficial online “people’s primary” to Christiane Taubir, a left-wing icon, but still refused to pull out her candidacy.
In France, where the political debate has significantly shifted to right-wing themes like anti-migration and anti-Muslims, Melenchon is trying to change the topic to classic arguments on social inequality and class warfare.
He believes the Ukraine conflict, which has increased inflation and hit the French economy, could help change the debate from Muslims to social reform needs. "It's a more classic left-right debate. Instead of this incredible situation where you have people arguing about Muslims," he said during a press conference early this month.
The Ukraine conflict also hit France’s far-right candidates, Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, both of whom publicly expressed positive views about Vladimir Putin in the past. But the Russian onslaught benefited Macron, who tried to mediate between Kiev and Moscow to ensure a peace deal pursuing a centrist international policy resembling his internal politics.
The far-right’s declining fortunes can help Melenchon claim second place in the first round on April 10 if voters feel that a genuine leftist candidate can be a better alternative to a pragmatist centrist, Macron.
But Gemenne believes that even if Melenchon made it to the second round on April 24, he would not have any real chance to beat Macron, a clear favourite, who has more than 30 percent approval, being far-ahead from any challengers, according to the recent polls.
Then, will the traditionalist Socialists lose their political standing completely?
“The Socialists never die,” says Gemenne. But under the dominance of Macron and the far-right, which also led to the emergence of a divided left, the out-of-touch Socialists are “either doomed to disappear or completely reinvent themselves,” says the professor. The danger is real, more than one-third of leftists angered by divisions will not vote, a survey found.
One of their biggest weaknesses is that they did not draw lessons from their defeat five years ago, being “lazy” on thinking about a serious political programme, says Gemenne. They were lazy because they believed that they are the natural leader of the left, but other competing leftist forces like Melenchon now threaten the very existence of the Socialist Party, he adds.
“They need to do it right now or they will disappear.”
But for the Socialists, it will be a difficult task to reinvent themselves as populist movements, which have been partially reignited by a growing resentment toward neo-liberal policies as well as fears of increasing migration, hit many countries including France.
“In this new populist era, traditional parties have various difficulties to reframe their political discourse. Among them, the leftist parties are having the hardest time reframing their political views,” says Yigit.
“They could not develop a comprehensive analysis on what’s going on in France. As a result, the French Socialists lost much of their political base to populists like Macron,” he adds.
Gemenne thinks similarly. Macron as a centrist “swallowed” much of traditional parties like the Socialists and the centre-right, he says. “Macron appeared to be the winning candidate while traditional political parties appeared to be losers.”