Socialist party

French Socialists hoping for a Mitterrand miracle, four decades on

French newpapers chart the euphoria and mid-life crisis of the French Socialist party
French newpapers chart the euphoria and mid-life crisis of the French Socialist party © Photo montage RFI/Adriana de Freitas

On 10 May, 1981, Socialist president François Mitterrand swept the French left to power after 23 years in opposition. It was an historic triumph for a party that is struggling to remain relevant four decades on.

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Just a year out from presidential polls, France’s Socialist party can't make itself heard. Some wonder if it even knows what it wants to say.

“The problem is that the left is proposing nothing we can build union around for the presidential election,” former Socialist president François Hollande told France Inter radio on Monday. “It can’t seem to agree on anything.”

And yet getting disparate factions to agree was precisely how Mitterrand ensured victory in 1981.

He folded the Communist party, then the dominant force on the French left, into the ranks of the Socialists (PS).

It wasn’t always easy, and there were disagreements on foreign and economic policy.

“Mitterrand was an Atlanticist and a pro-European – the complete opposite of Communist leader Georges Marchais, who had to follow an agenda imposed by the USSR,” political scientist Gerald Grunberg told France 24. “There were also disagreements over economic policy, notably on how extensive the nationalisation programme should be.”

Broadly speaking Mitterrand managed to unite the left around a common programme. “Everyone wanted to join together back then. The Communists notably conceded on many issues,” Grunberg explained.

The situation today is very different with often bitter divisions between Socialists, the Greens and the radical left France Unbowed.

“Above all,” Grunberg says, “François Mitterrand was a figurehead who offered a realistic chance of victory.” Whereas today, “no one thinks the French left can regain power”.

Waning support

Recent opinion polls show only around 25 percent of the electorate could envisage voting for the PS in the 2022 presidential elections.

But the fall from grace didn’t happen overnight.

“It’s a long story of hope and disappointment,” political scientist Frédéric Sawicki told RFI.

“Support from the working class, especially blue collars and employees, along with lower level civil servants, all of which contributed to Mitterrand’s victory in 1981, has been strongly eroded.”

Many of those supporters have died and “their children haven't necessarily carried on the family tradition,” Sawicki says.

One of the explanations is that the younger generation “don’t have the same image of the left and the Socialist party”.

Mitterrand ushered in big social reforms in the early years: an end to the death penalty, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, retirement at 60, a fifth week of paid holiday, increase in the minimum wage..  “People have forgotten about those significant social benefits but they remember the mandates of François Hollande and [prime minister] Lionel Jospin which “didn’t leave a lot of positive memories”.

The pull of the far right

Sawicki remains convinced that falling support in the ballot box doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t "more people who are attached to the values of the left, such as social justice, equality and wealth redistribution".

The problem, he says, is that “voters no longer see left parties as the ones best defending those values".

"Some of them are therefore turning towards the protectionist and nationalist ideas represented by Marine Le Pen in particular.”

As a result, Le Pen’s hard-right National Rally is gaining ground, with recent polls pointing to a run-off between her  and Emmanuel Macron in 2022.

Socialist/Green Alliance

The PS is eager to avoid a repeat of 2017 when its presidential candidate Benoit Hamon won a humiliating 6 percent of the vote in the first round.

Preparing for battle, the forces of the left met in mid-April to try and agree on a united front. The talks were inconclusive and are set to pick up again in late May.

But it looks most likely that the vote will be split between at least two presidential candidates: Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Unbowed and the joint PS/ Europe Ecology–the Greens (EELV) candidate, whoever that may be.

A left-wing alliance is already under way in the Hauts-de-France region in the north east, ahead of the regional elections in late June.

The area used to be a bastion for the left but waves of deindustrialisation has boosted support for the hard right.

A Green candidate is now heading a unity coalition with France Unbowed, EELV, French Communist party and Socialist Party.

They hope to be able to put aside their differences on a regional level, but it will be harder to develop a common strategy on national politics.

Hollande's contribution to the rise of Macron

François Hollande is among those in no hurry to push for a joint Socialist/Green presidential candidate at this stage.

You begin by “having ideas and proposals, not just waving your hands around and blathering on around the table,” he said on Monday. You create a “Socialist force to reach the first round […] and then you unite”.

Currently it’s far from clear who could get the PS to that first round. What's more, Hollande should go easy on the lesson-giving.

“Hollande played a considerable role in bringing Emmanuel Macron to power and discrediting the Socialist party,” Sawicki says. “He made policies that many on the left perceived as not being left-wing. If the Socialists and other parties are having to swim upstream, it’s partly down to the failure of his term in office.”

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