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Reuniting France’s Plural Left

In the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist victory and the overwhelming defeat of the Socialist Party, what is to become of the French left?

By Daniel Nichanian

Tagged Emmanuel MacronEuropean UnionFranceLeftpolitics

Political parties typically wait until an electoral defeat before falling into an identity crisis. But for François Hollande, winning the French presidency in 2012 was the opportunity to reshape his party’s ideological attachments and advance a goal of a long line of center-left politicians in France—to rid the Socialist Party of its decades-old commitment to governing as part of a union of the left. “What’s needed is a hara-kiri,” Hollande told journalists in 2015 with regard to the party he led to victory in the 2012 presidential election. “The Socialist Party must be liquidated to create a Party of Progress.”

Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 presidential election is, in many ways, the fulfillment of Hollande’s wish of creating a Third Way à la française. Out of the eleven candidates on the ballot during this year’s presidential election, Macron was the closest, both ideologically and personally, to Hollande. Himself a former Socialist Party member who served as Hollande’s business-friendly Minister of the Economy from 2014 to 2016, Macron is now working to construct the sort of centrist force that Hollande envisioned.

And yet there is a world of difference between Macron’s ascent and the way this change would have been realized by Hollande or Manuel Valls, Hollande’s Prime Minister from 2014 to 2016. Hollande and Valls aimed to transform the center-left from the inside, much like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder did in the U.K. and Germany. But Macron ran outside the party, and he exhibited a studied indifference toward the orientation and fate of left-leaning parties. He campaigned as a “neither left nor right” candidate, and on Monday he appointed as Prime Minster a member of the country’s main conservative party (The Republicans).

Macron’s strategy leaves a valuable, if exceedingly fragile, window for the French left to fight off the threat of fragmenting into “irreconcilable lefts,” as Valls quipped in 2016, to recommit to the arduous work of coalition politics that it abandoned during the Hollande years, and to build a new set of meaningful alternatives on behalf of which to reclaim power one day.

Plural Left, Irreconcilable Lefts

To better understand the significance of these shifts, we must look back at the pivotal Epinay convention in 1971, where François Mitterand secured the Socialist Party’s leadership and obtained its permission to prioritize an alliance with the then-powerful Communist Party, rather than with centrist and centrist-parties, as it had been doing. By the time Mitterand became president in 1981, the joint platform he had reached with the Communist Party had already dissolved. Still, since 1971, the Socialist Party has remained committed to the basic tenet of Epinay’s electoral strategy; when it has needed to form an electoral alliance, it has looked to its left rather than its right.

The recent history of left-leaning French government has oscillated between direct policies to promote social welfare—such as the Universal Health Coverage law and the 35-hour work week implemented under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin—and policies that promote privatization and deregulation, such as Jospin’s record sell-off of public sector enterprises and Hollande’s push to loosen labor rules.

But this tension played out as a conflict internal to the left and center-left without ever fully detonating their ties. Despite their vast differences, the various factions retained a sense of acting under a joint umbrella; this enabled coalition governments at the national level, such as the “plural left” of the 1997-2002 legislature, and at the local level.

In the Paris municipality, for instance, Socialists have since 2001 governed alongside the Green Party, which has pushed to increase the building of new housing, particularly affordable housing. In the 2010 regional elections in Île-de-France, the region that encompasses Paris, the Green Party campaigned on a plank that included instituting a transit pass to allow riders to travel anywhere in the metro area for a flat rate, an important step to universalizing access to transit for people residing in Paris’s poorer suburbs. This universal fare card became part of the Socialists’ coalition agreement with the Greens and it was later implemented.

Hollande’s presidency began under similar auspices in 2012, but somewhere along the way, the plural left veered into irreconcilable lefts.

Familiar tensions took a venomous turn in 2014, spurred by the pressures of the economic crisis and high unemployment rates, and by stark disagreements over whether to abide by, or challenge, European rules on member states’ fiscal discipline. Valls became Prime Minister, Macron was appointed Minister of the Economy, the Green Party left the cabinet, and prominent Socialist cabinet members were ousted after they criticized Hollande’s austerity measures. “The whole world is begging us to put an end to these absurd austerity policies,” one of the ousted ministers said at a news conference.

The protagonists of the 2017 presidential election acted out the script of this divorce, behaving like the rifts between them were unbridgeable.

A potential path to political unity did emerge when the unpopular Hollande forewent running for reelection in late 2016. Valls and two of the ministers who had been ousted from the cabinet in 2014—Benoît Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg—agreed to participate in a presidential primary. This mattered: The highly contentious campaign was an occasion to air out the issues that had mined the Hollande years, and voters who self-identified as belonging to the left (the primary was open to anyone who signed a declaration of support for unspecified left values) were charged with deciding whose vision ought to be followed over the next five years.

Hamon won, defeating Valls by nineteen points after putting forth an anti-austerity platform and campaigning on a proposal to institute a universal basic income. He soon reached an alliance with the Green Party, whose presidential candidate withdrew to support Hamon.

But there were two men who refused to participate in the primary, though they were invited to do so. One (Macron) sought to run to the Socialist Party’s right; the other (Jean-Luc Mélenchon), to its left. Neither wanted to gamble their presidential dreams on this preliminary hurdle; and neither wanted to be weighted down by an association with the unpopular incumbent’s party. In the end, Mélenchon, Hamon, and Macron all ran separately, despite the foreboding that this may prevent all of them from making the top-two runoff (polling pointed to a runoff between conservative Francois Fillon and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen up until financial scandals sank the former). And there was no sense during the campaign—as there had been in past elections featuring various left-wing perspectives—that these candidates were competing to see who would reign supreme over a political family to which they all still felt like they loosely belonged.

Macron’s Moment

On April 23, Macron came out on top with 24 percent of the first round vote; in a runoff two weeks later, he beat the Le Pen, 66 percent to 34 percent.

Macron had shaped the pro-business policies of the Hollande years. A former investment banker, he was one of the main instigators of a major labor law that weakened workers’ rights by facilitating layoffs and allowing company-level collective bargaining agreements to set lower standards than those of industry-wide agreements. As president, Macron plans to quickly push through new reforms loosening the labor market, for instance by granting companies greater allowance to negotiate with their employees on matters now set by national labor laws.

Macron’s platform also calls for cutting corporate taxes and slashing overall public spending as well as passing a stimulus plan. Macron is proposing the elimination of 120,000 public sector jobs and the implementation of “structural reforms” of social protections; for instance, he will restrict access to unemployment benefits for people who turn down two job offers.

Macron says that he will entrust this platform to a cabinet and parliamentary majority that ranges from the center-left to the center-right. “I will have with me women and men who come from social democracy, from a responsible left that wants to govern, from responsible ecologistes, from radicals [this is a reference to a small French center-left party], from the center, which is an objective ally, from the center-right, and from the progressist, social and European right,” he said in March.

So does Macron’s triumph signify the end of the union of the French left?

That’s what Socialist Party leaders in Hollande’s wing of the party are betting on. Valls has offered to join Macron, declaring the Socialist Party effectively dead; others who are staying in it hope to sever its traditional attachments to a union of the lefts and engage with Macron on friendly, non-oppositional terms. The head of the Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, made his own vision clear last month. “The next [party] convention will mark the definitive end of the Epinay cycle that Mitterand opened in 1971,” he said. “It is a new era that is beginning. I will propose… truly moving past the PS.”

What interests me in the current context is not just that these politicians want the remains of the French left to commit to pro-business, free-enterprise principles, but also that they seek to do so over the ruins of the pluralistic left. Theirs is a vision of governing without the burden of being asked to negotiate or deal with more left-leaning perspectives.

(Germany illustrates just such a political system in which left and center-left have cut governing ties. Three left-of-center parties—the Social Democratic Party, The Left, and The Greens—obtained more seats than Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance in the 2013 federal elections. But the Social Democrats steered away from building a red/red/green coalition, forming one with Merkel instead.)

It is not only the center that is intent on moving past the French plural left’s history; so too is Mélenchon. In the wake of his success as the candidate of Unsubmissive France in the presidential election, where he received around 20 percent of the vote, Mélenchon reiterated that he would only work in concert with the austerity-opposing Hamon if the latter left the Socialist Party—a loaded statement coming just one month before parliamentary elections in which Unsubmissive France and Hamon’s Socialist Party both risk a wipeout absent a leftwide alliance.

Yet it is too early to conclude that these factors—this yawning gap between former allies, and Macron’s platform and post-partisan rhetoric—will inevitably erase the overarching left/right opposition as a structuring dynamic in French politics. Questions that will determine how the country’s political landscape gets recomposed include: Where will the still-enigmatic Macron position himself once he has taken over the reins of power? Also, how aggressively will he pursue the sort of deregulation and deficit reduction he ran on? Who will even remain in the Socialist Party once its most opportunistic leaders have jumped ship to join Macron?

The answer to some of these questions will ultimately hinge on Macron himself and the legislators who will be elected in June. But this last one is in the hands of the French public: How much appetite is there for rebuilding the promise of a left alternative, and for reconstructing a pluralistic union that is willing to debate the contents of that promise and that is capable of growing sufficiently strong to deliver on it electorally?

Experimenting with Geringonças

If this prospect appears improbable today, it’s partly because coalitions are too often expected to simply fall into place; and so they come to be seen as unattainable and unmanageable as soon as differences get too considerable. But coalitions are not meant to be easy or obvious.

Take Portugal’s recent history. When no party obtained an absolute majority in the country’s legislative elections in 2015, its Socialist Party broke with expectations that it would support a center-right minority government and, instead, unexpectedly allied itself with two smaller left-wing parties for the first time. To create this governing coalition of the left, the Socialist Party agreed to halt the incumbent government’s austerity policies and jettison its own proposals to deregulate the labor market, and its new partners dropped their demands for a frontal challenge to European Union fiscal rules. The final agreement between the parties looked so unwieldy and so unlikely given the vast ideological distance involved that commentators labeled this coalition geringonça, a Portugese word that means “contraption.” And yet this coalition has had success. Prime Minister António Costa’s government raised retirement benefits, public sector workers’ wages, and the minimum wage, and it reversed the prior government’s plans to privatize Portugal’s major transit networks, all while seeing unemployment decline and the deficit drop to its lowest level in decades thanks to sustained growth.

The term geringonça nicely captures the fact that at the heart of all coalition politics lies an effort to cobble together awkwardly fitted elements. This process serves to provisionally smooth over some differences, but it also serves to bring out contrasts between broad political blocs and therefy clarify the ideological stakes of electoral decisions and public engagement. France sorely lacks such clarity in this moment, with the country’s incoming leaders concealing their own ideological priors and policy goals behind the depoliticized tale that it should not matter for how one governs whether one identifies with the left or the right.

It does not appear, for now, that France’s left-leaning parties will have regrouped in time for June’s legislative elections. But the left already controls many municipalities and regions. These are apt spaces in which to experiment with a new French geringonça. Germany’s three main left-leaning parties began playing with this model for the first time in 2014 at the regional level. France’s municipal and regional governments can similarly provide arenas for the left’s various factions to work through how their policies and values distinguish them from the incoming president’s vision of society. Those alliances will be temporary and contentious—“contraptions” can feel unsatisfying at times—but that can’t be taken as a sign that you are failing. It’s the tell that you are on the path from a fragmented left back to a plural one.

Read more about Emmanuel MacronEuropean UnionFranceLeftpolitics

Daniel Nichanian is a post-doctoral fellow in political science and political theory at the University of Chicago.

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