What’s the Matter with France?

As we reach a midway point in François Hollande’s presidency, let’s put his staggering unpopularity and political difficulties into context.

(Francois Lenoir / Reuters)

1. The French Socialist Party (PS) remains haunted by François Mitterrand’s 1983–4 U-turn.

Elected on a platform of “Keynesianism in one country,” Mitterrand was forced to choose between spending more money and keeping the franc within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Outsiders were betting he couldn’t do both — and they were right.

After much discussion with his anti-ERM “visiteurs du soir,” he opted to follow the advice of his finance ministry and give up his Keynesian policies. But instead of declaring a clean break with socialism, Mitterrand presented his decision as a commitment to European integration. Market-friendly policies were introduced through the backdoor without any ideological change at the party level.

Hence the difficulty for the post-Mitterrand Socialist Party: they have pro-market policies but no new ideology with which to justify them.

François Hollande, in much-discussed press conference in January this year, fumbled around with the language of social democracy. “Liberal” in France remains a taboo, particularly on the Left. The result is disenchantment all-round. Verbal gestures, such as Hollande’s promise to attack finance and “re-moralize” capitalism in his 2012 presidential campaign, fall flat as no policies are forthcoming that match the rhetoric.

2. France’s left-wing parties are not parties of the working class.

In the 1980s, the French Communist Party (PCF) lost its status as the main mass-based opposition party. Former PCF voters have gone in a number of different directions: Many withdrew from politics altogether, a few remained within the party or joined other small far-left parties, and a large number shifted to the far right and began to vote (or at least sympathize with) the National Front (FN).

The shift from the PCF to the FN is one of the most significant political developments for France in recent decades, though it is rarely commented on. The Socialist Party has retained the support of much of France’s large public sector, but it also competes for an urban middle class vote that has little in common with former card-carrying Communists who spent their lives working in French shipyards or train yards.

The bourgeois social base of the French left was evident in the recent European elections. The Front de Gauche, a party to the left of the PS, drew virtually none of its supporters from the unemployed. The FN, in contrast, is by far the party favored most by those out of work. The PS did worst in the May elections among workers, while its highest numbers were the so-called cadres supérieures, the high-flying professionals. Classified by income, the share of the Socialist vote rises as one moves up the income scale; the opposite is true of the FN. (See here for these results.)

3. The far left in France has a leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Unfortunately, Mélenchon is a narcissist.

For all his eloquence and timely put-downs, Mélenchon’s obsession is himself. Rarely can he give an interview without talking about his persecution by the Socialist Party and the Socialist-sympathizing French media. The momentum his party gained during the 2012 election campaign was partly a consequence of the widespread anti-finance and anti-elite sentiment, which also helped Hollande win the presidency.

Yet Mélenchon, once again overcome by his own ego, decided to run in the parliamentary elections against Marine Le Pen in Hénin-Baumon, a locality in the North of France, as if his mere presence could lift a town out of its depressed state and magically infuse it with some anti–National Front fervor.

He fared poorly (receiving just over 20%; Le Pen won with just under 50% of the vote) and has since become a more marginal figure in French politics. This year, the Front de Gauche has had little impact in elections, scoring only 6.33% in the European elections and not seeming to benefit at all from the governing Socialist Party’s historic unpopularity.

4. Hollande will not change his spots. Ever. He will not pull out of his back pocket some long-hidden master plan for reforming the French economy. Nor will he take on the banks, or dent a long-standing trend towards growing inequality in France.

He is what he has always been: a party apparatchik, clever and determined, but without any big idea or project.

His election in 2012 was fortuitous. He became candidate because of the exit from the race of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and won the election because of the strength of anti-Sarkozy sentiment. His own contribution was to hold the line and not make any big mistake.

Even then, he only just won. Another week of campaigning could have been enough for Sarkozy to claw back a victory. So there will be no “Mitterrand moment,” as Peter Gumbel once put it; no grand transformation, no rabbit pulled out of the hat.

5. Based on a close reading of the 2012 campaign, and an assessment of the state of French society and Left politics, it seemed that there were two historical goals against which the Socialist president — along with his Socialist majority within the National Assembly — could be judged.

The first was the goal of growth and social equality: pulling France out of its quagmire, reducing the terribly high levels of unemployment, doing something about the searing injustices of the dual labour market, tackling the decline in competitiveness.

On that score, Hollande’s record is dismal. He failed to renegotiate the Fiscal Compact in favor of growth, as he had promised, and the preference for internal devaluation of prices and wages as a condition for the return of growth within the Eurozone — the “sadomonetarist” agenda — remains central to EU macro-economic policymaking.

The second goal was to halt the drift in French politics towards the right — evident in the mainstreaming of National Front rhetoric, the growing social acceptability of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, and the turn to law and order as a solution to France’s social problems. On this, the Socialist government has also failed completely, with its passing of the law on gay marriage an exception that proves the rule. (Even there, many defended gay marriage in the name of the family rather than equality.) The results of the European elections sealed this failure, with the FN coming out on top by a large margin.

Another telling sign was the decision to replace Jean-Marc Ayrault with Manuel Valls as Prime Minister. Valls’ popularity has come through being a hardline interior minister willing to take on France’s Roma population. His nomination as prime minister led to the exit from the government of its Green Party ministers.

In his actions and rhetoric, there is little to differentiate Valls from the Right. Unlikely to collude with the National Front in an election, the Socialist Party has nevertheless acquiesced in the rightward shift of politics in France. Here we also have to thank Mitterrand, whose tolerance of the National Front was due to his calculation that it would split the Right and therefore keep the Left in power.

Halfway through his term, Hollande has failed on both these counts. He is partly to blame, but this failure also reflects the failure of the French Left.