Policy Papers

The French Socialists and the legacy of a fragmented left

Pamela Pilbeam |

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Executive Summary

  • On 6 May 2007 the French Socialist party suffered its third successive defeat in presidential elections as its candidate, Segolène Royal, won only 46.94% in the second round to Nicolas Sarkozy's 53.06%. Since then several Socialists have actually joined the new government.
  • However, it has always been difficult to build a coherent coalition on the left in France: fragmentation has been one of its chief characteristics dating back to the Revolution.
  • For much of the twentieth-century the Socialists were weaker than the Communists and, even when that changed in the 1960s, alliance with the Communists made electoral sense.
  • The difficulties of the Socialists post-Mitterand stemmed mainly from the intellectual stagnation and corruption which characterised his last years in power.
  • Despite a disastrous showing in the 2002 presidential election, the reconstruction of the party began under Lionel Jospin: Segolène Royal herself first served in his 1997-2002 government.
  • But while Jospin's strategy was to rebuild a coalition of the 'plural left', including groups to the left of the PS and the Greens, it saw no fundamental innovations in outlook or policy.
  • Royal's campaign was populist, indeed Gaullist, appealing beyond the confines of the plural left over the heads of parties, including her own, to people who did not normally vote for them.
  • Moreover, her most distinctive innovation was a call for constitutional reform and democratic renewal in the face of public apathy.
  • It remains to be seen how far this approach will survive the reassertion of fragmentation which will inevitably follow defeat.


French Socialists since Mitterrand have wrestled with two main problems. First, their failure to agree on their objectives: are they still socialists and what does that mean today? Next, given that they can only hope to return to government as the leading partner within a 'plural left' alliance, what is their relationship with their potential allies? This paper will explore how these issues have affected the PS (Socialist Party) and the plural left since 1995 and where the party might go after its third successive defeat in presidential elections.

The long tradition of a fragmented left

The divisions in the French left began in 1789. No single republican tradition emerged from the conflicts of the 1790s. Those who claimed to be the heirs of the First Republic (1792-1804) tried through conspiracy (1830-48) and in government (1848, 1870-1940 and from 1945) to agree a republican format, with some competition from Bonapartist and authoritarian alternatives. Some early socialists honoured Robespierre and the Jacobins for their contribution to the centralisation and modernisation of the state, while others denigrated the Terror and the failure to improve the lives of ordinary people. A tiny number, most notably Louis Blanqui, inspired by the mythology of Babeuf's 'Conspiracy of the Equals', revered revolution as the means to social change.

The experiences of the Second Republic (1848-51) exacerbated divisions by formally dividing those satisfied with democratic republican institutions from those who hoped that the new republican state would acknowledge its social responsibility, for instance to provide work or social workshops (especially Pierre-Joseph Proudhon). The resulting 'June Days' (1848) saw a violent struggle between the extremes and produced the first socialist martyrs. The Paris Commune (1871), although no more a socialist revolt than the June Days, was later marked by European socialists as the first workers' revolution. In subsequent decades the French left emerged as a handful of competing groups all of whom claimed to be the heirs of 1789.

The Radicals/Radical Socialists (1901) were in reality far from radical, their anti-clericalism aside. They claimed to represent peasants and workers, but refused to acknowledge that any major social reforms were needed to improve the lives of the poor. Half a dozen socialist groups pressed the case to represent Blanquist, Proudhonist, Marxist or a mixture of traditions within the National Assembly. At the same time they ostracised individual deputies such as Millerand, who dared to join the 'bourgeois' Waldeck-Rousseau government of 1899. Jean Jaurès, who anticipated that eventually socialists would work through existing state institutions, and Jules Guesde, who was firmly Marxist, became the leading figures within groups that in 1905 united in the SFIO (Section Française de l'International Ouvrière). Up to 1914 about a third of socialist deputies remained independent. Socialists held to a rhetoric of transforming the capitalist state into a socialist society. By 1914 there were 100 socialists in parliament who were convinced, however, that the Third Republic was a thoroughly unsatisfactory 'bourgeois' state. They claimed to represent workers' interests, but the largest occupational group amongst their voters were teachers, their deputies firmly middle class and their leaders drawn from a highly-educated elite, often lawyers. With the outbreak of war in 1914 socialist internationalism proved a chimera, but one in the name of which Jaurès was assassinated. French socialists like their German counterparts, voted for war credits and two, including Guesde, joined the union sacrée government of 1914.

The war produced serious tensions in French socialism, but the next major fracture came in 1920, when at their congress in Tours, the majority of the SFIO voted to support the revolutionary invocations of Lenin's Third International and formed the PCF (Parti Communiste Française). The PCF, depicting itself as the only genuinely revolutionary party, formed an alliance with the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), the largest trade union. However the majority of socialist members of the National Assembly remained within the SFIO. The self-imposed isolation of the PCF meant that it fought its first elections alone, and despite securing around 300,000 votes, never won more than ten seats. In 1934, following the reversed directive of the Third International, the PCF helped form a popular front against fascism with the SFIO, which the Radicals later joined. In May 1936 this Popular Front alliance won the election. For the first time the SFIO became the largest party in the Assembly and the socialist leader, Léon Blum, became prime minister. The PCF refused ministerial posts, but voted for this short-lived government (1936-37).

At the end of the Second World War three left-wing parties, the Communists, Socialists, and a new centre-left Catholic MRP (Popular Republican Movement) governed in coalition, with 75% of the vote. However the largest of the three, the PCF, was pushed out of power in April 1947 because others saw it as both Stalinist and committed to world revolution: the Communists were not to be reinstated in government during either the Fourth Republic, or the Fifth, until 1981. They retained at least 20% of the electorate, but because they did not join electoral alliances, their parliamentary representation still did not correspond to their electoral strength. Meanwhile, the SFIO gradually lost votes although it continued as a major partner in the governments of the Fourth Republic and its leader, Guy Mollet, served as prime minister on several occasions. The collapse of the Fourth Republic discredited those parties most closely associated with the regime, and especially the Socialists. After de Gaulle's return to power and the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the Socialists, Radicals (a tiny relic of pre-1939 days) and other small left-wing groups were kept out of government by de Gaulle's right-of-centre alliances. Although close to total fragmentation, they finally managed to form an alliance. In 1965 they supported the presidential candidature of François Mitterrand, who had been a member of a number of small left-of-centre parties and most governments during the Fourth Republic. He fought de Gaulle to a second ballot.

However, the left federation (Fédération de la Gauche Democratique et Socialiste) itself counted for little. In 1968 the vociferous radical worker and student demonstrators were alienated from the Socialist and Communist parties and the trade unions. In the legislative elections called by de Gaulle in June 1968 the left federation crumbled and the socialists and other left-wing groups reached their lowest ebb. A year later in the presidential election, called when de Gaulle resigned after a referendum on reforms failed, the left was totally fragmented. The Communist, Duclos, scored 22%, the Socialist, Gaston Defferre, a mere 5%.

The legacy of the Mitterrand years

François Mitterrand's legacy to French socialists was two-fold. Firstly, to commit them to republican democracy and especially the presidential system of the Fifth Republic. Secondly, to galvanise them from near extinction in 1969 to become the main partner in a series of coalition governments from 1981 to 2002.

At their Issy-les-Moulineaux congress in 1969, the SFIO rebranded itself the Parti Socialiste (PS). Two years later Mitterrand, who had never been a member of the SFIO, was elected secretary with the help of Mauroy and Chevènement, who were later to serve under him after 1981. He was chosen for his ruthless opportunism and his experience in government during the Fourth Republic. Then the new PS broke from its old centre-left allies to reconstruct the alliance with the PCF which it had repudiated in 1947. Their 'Common Programme' promised 'a break with capitalism' through large-scale nationalisation and the 1968 French student rebel generation rallied to the new PS, aware that social and economic reform was needed to combat the impact of the oil crises of the 1970s.

At first the PCF was numerically the leading party in the new alliance and Mitterrand made no bones about trying to win over Communist voters. In the 1978 parliamentary elections the PS finally nudged ahead of the PCF for the first time since 1936. This reversal owed little to Mitterrand's own determination, more to changing political, economic and social circumstances. From 1974 mounting criticism by French intellectuals of Soviet authoritarianism after the publication of works like Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago reduced PCF appeal. In the 1970s de-industrialisation cut the traditional PCF worker vote, and some of the remaining workers were won over by PS promises of autogestion (worker/management cooperation). In 1981 the PS became the leading partner in a left-alliance government, a position it retained, with breaks, until 1995.

Mitterrand not only gave the Socialists the chance to govern for the longest and most sustained period in their history, he also turned the PS into a tool for the election of the president. Elected first in 1981, re-elected in 1988, Mitterrand became the longest serving president of the Fifth Republic. However, his personal triumph created new problems for the Socialists, who had constantly opposed the presidential system created under de Gaulle's aegis in 1958. In office Mitterrand became increasingly Gaullist, focusing on foreign policy, and resisting attempts to modify the presidential regime.

It would be extreme to blame Mitterrand for the death of socialism, since its demise was Europe-wide. However, as the PCF vote dwindled to a mere 9%, he did little to encourage the development of new policies which might have attracted disillusioned PCF voters, or even retained PS ones. The PS became a party of government like any other, with a succession of corruption scandals and the suicide of Bérégovoy, prime minister in 1993. Not only had their policies ceased to sound socialist, their strategies to cope with inflation, growing social conflicts and the impact of globalisation gradually became indistinguishable from those of the right-wing parties. Socialism had lost its theoretical underpinnings to become merely a collection of responses to changing circumstances. As in other countries, governments increasingly relied on 'think tanks' and policy became ideologically anaemic. The absence of ideological differences between right and left were not, of course, confined to France. However, in France the tendency was reinforced by regular cohabitation of a president from one party and a prime minister from another, as well as the development of the Council of State's role in checking radical legislation.

The 'plural left' since 1995

When Mitterrand withdrew from politics in 1995, shortly before his death, he deliberately left the succession unresolved. Party factionalism meant that none of the likely PS contenders for the presidential election that year could secure majority backing. Lionel Jospin, an academic and a former party secretary, eventually managed to obtain the support of the party and came top in the first round, with 23%, going on to secure 47% in the second round, leaving Chirac the winner in his third presidential race. However, given the disasters of the early 1990s, this result was regarded as a sign that the party could recover.

Jospin was a cautious but determined politician, who shunned extravagant or unsustainable rhetoric. He was careful to promote colleagues untainted by the scandals of the previous generation. A number of women were amongst them, including Segolène Royal. Like Mitterrand in 1972, he was also aware that PS recovery depended on rebuilding fragmented alliances. He encouraged consensus. His 'plural left' included the Communists, Greens, a small group of left-wing Radicals and, further to the left, the Gauche socialiste. In 1997 Chirac called an unexpected election in which the plural left secured a narrow victory with the number of Socialists in parliament rising from 56 to 245. Many of these PS deputies were inevitably new to national politics and 30% were women.

In 1997 the PS was the largest element in the government, but its survival depended not only on internal unity but also on securing allies. Jospin became prime minister and his government pursued a moderate, state-led vaguely reforming policy, steering clear of all traditional socialist rhetoric. With the Communists a mere shadow, the PS no longer needed to pretend to believe in the overthrow of capitalism and could focus on the relationship of the government with the market. Their most distinctive solution to persistent unemployment was a statutory 35-hour working week which was actually quite unpopular with a lot of workers. However, despite some modest economic recovery, Jospin lacked the fire and drive to make substantial inroads into the jobless figures. Leading ministers began to leave the government and the plural left started to fragment.

The presidential election of 2002 revealed the extent of disenchantment and fragmentation in the plural left. In the first round, of the fifteen candidates, seven were left-wing. It was almost as if the plural left government of 1997-2002 had had seven prime ministers. This fragmentation stripped votes from Jospin, who scored 16%, Chirac came first with just under 20%, but the shock for most voters was that the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen gained 17% and went on to the next round. Predictably 82% of voters then rallied to Chirac in round two. Many voters abstained throughout or registered a protest vote. Affronted, Jospin resigned and withdrew from politics. Two months later came the legislative elections. The right, clamped together in a new alliance, won an absolute majority of 355 seats out of 577. The PS slumped catastrophically from 246 to 140.

However, two years later there were signs of recovery. In the 2004 regional elections, in alliance with the Greens and Communists, the plural left gained power in all of the 22 metropolitan regions except Alsace and Corsica, and also secured the four overseas regions. Ségolène Royal won Poitou-Charentes which was the heartland of Raffarin, then prime minister. Her success demonstrated that she could appeal to people who were not traditional Socialist voters and made her seem a potential presidential candidate. However the parliamentary group failed to offer any policies distinct from those of the government. Just as in Britain, right and left seemed to blur into an indistinguishable centre, enlivened only by personality clashes and disastrous repeated rumours of corruption.

Factionalism within the PS itself was perhaps the most unsettling feature of the plural left because, with the collapse of the PCF, the PS had become numerically dominant within the alliance. In some respects the Socialists seemed happier in opposition than in government, as illustrated by the title of a recent account of their years in power, L'Ambition et le Remords. Les socialistes français et le pouvoir (1905-2005) : implying that ambition always led to remorse, because they inevitably disappointed their supporters and left themselves exposed to accusations of opportunism.

The PS today acknowledges that, for all the talk of rupture, class is no longer the issue. Instead the Socialists see themselves, and their forbears, as part of le peuple du gauche, distinguishable from the right by their more moral approach to the perplexing cultural conflicts of a society which is far less homogenous than a generation ago. Their leaders are, as always, highly-educated middle-class professionals effectively indistinguishable from the leaders of the right-wing parties. Their electorate is still drawn from the lower-middle classes, teachers, public-service workers and middle managers. This profile remains relatively unaltered; what has varied has been its degree of success. Mitterrand extended the geographical scope of the party, broadening out from the traditional worker heartland in the Nord, Pas-de-Calais and the Bouches-du-Rhône to make it a more national organisation, including even Brittany. However in recent years the PS has lost the young voters it attracted in the early 1970s and particularly the unemployed, who have been drawn towards the National Front.

The presidential election of 2007

In November 2006 the PS became the first major party in France to select a female presidential candidate, Segolène, who had been a relatively junior minister under Jospin. (Minister for the Environment 1992-93; Deputy-Education Minister and Deputy Minister for Family and Childhood) All 220,000 PS members (including 68,000 new ones who had joined the PS through the internet) were asked to vote. Royal secured 60.6% as against 20.8 % for Strauss-Kahn (Finance Minister under Jospin and avowedly Social-Democrat) and 18.5% for Fabius (a prime minister under Mitterand). No other Socialist hopeful has ever had such a strong endorsement.

Segolène Royal has a typical profile for a PS senior figure. She is a graduate of ENA (École Nationale d'Adminstration) and a lawyer. Her Cent promesses (Hundred Promises), echoed Mitterrand's 1981 declaration as well as some traditional socialist ideas. Like Jospin, she actively promoted democratic renewal in her election speeches, but her eloquence lacked the specific promises of her right-wing rival Nicolas Sarkozy. She portrayed her website 'Desirs de l'Avenir' (Wishes for the Future) as a way of listening to the electorate. She called for democratie participative: citizens' juries, decentralisation, the use of referenda as well as the strengthening of the Assembly's role as a check on the executive. However, like Sarkozy, her actual style during the election was more presidential than parliamentary.

Both presidential candidates talked about jobs, but Royal promised more state help. She promised to create jobs for young people through the PME, Petites et Moyennes Entreprises, (small and medium-sized businesses): companies that reinvested profits would be taxed less heavily than those who use the profits to increase dividends for shareholders. She was also far more interested in ecological issues than Sarkozy. Royal may or may not have read Jaurs and other early socialist pioneers, but in some ways her proposals seemed to hark back to nineteenth and early twentieth-century Radicals and Socialists. She promoted the idea of leaving non-governmental organisations to decide on economic issues, including the 35-hour week, rather than continuing to impose a centralised directive.

Royal maintained a certain independence from the party through her website and her presidential campaign, despite the fact that her partner, François Hollande, is secretary of the party. This probably made sense given popular disillusionment with the main parties, but was not such a big break with the past given Mitterrand's own ambivalent relationship with the PS. Royal proposed a referendum on a Sixth Republic which would restore power to the National Assembly vis-à-vis the President which might seem to have been a break with Mitterand's monarchical presidency. But her style was Gaullist, appealing to the people directly over the heads of the established parties, including her own, to the obvious discomfiture of senior socialists during the presidential campaign.

Royal avoided a repetition of 2002 by a wide margin, winning 25.87 % of the vote in the first round as against 31.18 % for Nicolas Sarkozy. Her share of the vote was only slightly less than that of François Mitterand in 1981, but there the similarity ended. Mitterand had been able to call on the reserves of the Communists who polled 15.35% that year; in 2007 the PCF polled 1.9% and even Oliver Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist League, the highest placed of the far-left candidates polled only 4.1%. The Centrists of the UDF did split in the second round but more of them voted for Sarkozy (47%) than Royal (45%).

Almost immediately the vote was declared, Strauss-Kahn was heard on French TV calling for a social-democratic renewal of the PS. It is true that in some respects Royal kept the PS at arm's length, but she continued to defend Socialist policies like the 35-hour week whilst admitting that changes would have to be made to this and other social legislation. Her policies would perhaps not have been very different from Sarkozy's, as his supposedly free-market approach is tempered by the need to compromise as well as by the social paternalism that was evident in his election speeches.

Royal's campaign strategy was very personalised, like Sarkozy she appealed in a Gaullist fashion directly to the people, but with less success than her rival. However, as Sarkozy never forgot to point out, the level of participation rose to 84%, compared to less than 80% in the 2002 election. The increase owed something to the populism of Royal as well as to that of Sarkozy. It is hard to believe that elephants (the French equivalent of men in grey suits) such as Fabius or Strauss-Kahn would have matched Royal. If the French Socialists often seem happier in opposition than in power they can look forward to the next five years, but opposition looks as if it will see a certain amount of blood letting - and fraternity in short supply.

Further Reading

J.-J. Becker and G.Cadar (dir), Histoire des gauches en France: tome I : L'héritage du xixe siècle, tome II : A l'épreuve de l'histoire (Paris, 2004)

A. Bergounioux and G. Grunberg, L'Ambition et les Remords. Les socialistes français et le pouvoir (1905-2005) (Paris, 2005)

Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1981)

J-P. Rioux, Jean Jaures (Paris, 2005)

Michel Vovelle, Les Jacobins de Robespierre a Chevènement (Paris, 1999)

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