It’s been a year of cruel anniversaries for France’s Socialist Party (PS). In 1971, at its inaugural congress in Épinay-sur-Seine, a generation of activists and politicians laid the foundations of a big tent social-democratic force, hoping to ride the wave of post-’68 social movements and conquer institutional power.
In 1981, François Mitterrand finally became the first Socialist elected to France’s highest office — ending two decades of Gaullist and conservative rule, and cementing the PS in the presidency for fourteen years. Having reined in the French Communist Party (PCF) — France’s dominant left-wing force in the immediate postwar period — the Socialist Party established itself as one of the key pillars of the Fifth Republic.
Or so it seemed. Fast forward to 2021, and it would be an understatement to say that the party has seen better days. The end game of its long drift to the right since the 1980s, the PS was battered by François Hollande’s disastrous tenure between 2012 and 2017, which saw droves of party cadres and officials jump ship and join forces behind the then president’s former economy minister and eventual successor, Emmanuel Macron. Contested by the En Marche! leader to its right, and by both the Greens and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to its left, the Socialist Party has been outgrown by the breakdown of the party system it helped usher into existence half a century ago.
The window dressing of the PS’s golden years is still around — if only thanks to the credibility that media institutions still grant the party, and to the inertia and low turnout that favors incumbent parties in local and regional elections. In regional elections held this summer, the Socialists held on to their five incumbent regional presidencies, allowing them to credibly argue that they remain a key player in any future left-wing political formation. Yet when, on October 14, the PS nominated Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo as its candidate for the 2022 presidential elections, it appeared like little more than a footnote to the main contest between Macron and the far-right parties.
Paris Against Paris
So, what does Hidalgo offer, in an already crowded — and struggling — left-wing field? Her first task is a negative one: shedding the reputation which is stuck to her forehead as the capital’s mayor, the public face of the country’s wealthiest urban center in a time of popular animosity toward ensconced urban elites.
Eschewing her image as yet another candidate handpicked by and for the country’s young and ascendant professional classes, Hidalgo has sought to craft a campaign narrative around an opposition to excessive Parisian centralism, leading a tour in recent months of medium-sized PS-run cities. Yet it is all too symptomatic of a spent political force that its chosen strategy is to run Paris’s mayor in a campaign against top-down government from… Paris.
Beyond the usual rhetoric of an old-style, pre-Macron-era PS campaign — wage parity, republican “equality,” more parliamentary autonomy but no transformative turn to a Sixth Republic, allusions to investments in public services — Hidalgo’s flagship proposition to date is to double education workers’ salaries. Even this proposal, however, has been cause for stirrings of doubt within the party about overreach. “There is nothing worse than starting off a campaign with a categorical measure,” replied Stéphane Le Foll, who was Hidalgo’s main rival for the nomination. “If you double teachers’ salaries, the others will come and ask: why not us?”
Reelected party chairman last month, Olivier Faure threw the full weight of his caucusing power behind Hidalgo’s nomination. Hoping to avoid the bad optics of a protracted candidacy fight, Faure wanted to give off the image of a well-heeled party machine eager to reassert its relevance and credibility for government. The few intra-party debates that did bubble up to the surface, however, reveal a political force that is trapped painfully in its own past. Though he was ultimately snubbed by the party apparatus, Le Foll, the mayor of Le Mans and an ardent Hollande loyalist who served as spokesperson and minister in the last PS government, was eager to make the nomination battle into a referendum on the Hollande years.
One can at least credit the rest of the party with honesty, in its choice to remain silent about the last Socialist president: after all, Hollande’s heir is currently in power, shorn of the baggage of a party with the “S” word attached. Indeed, the sitting president’s rightward drift since 2017 is often exaggerated. Whatever-the-cost loyalty to the European project; a commitment to downsizing the welfare state and streamlining labor codes; a single-minded obsession with a stringent conception of secularism; and a habit of falling back on policing should these things cause any fuss — these were the PS’s legacy to France before they were Macron’s.
A month after launching her campaign in Rouen, Hidalgo is struggling to gain traction. Ahead of her first speech as party front woman — slated to take place in Lille this Saturday — most polls place her at only 4 or 5 percent support.
In truth, the decks were stacked against Hidalgo from the start: the PS is in crisis because the political space it crafted for itself over the last decades of the twentieth century just doesn’t exist anymore. Emmanuel Macron’s arrival to the center of the French political scene in 2017 siphoned off a swath of centrist PS officials or those who might have otherwise found a place in what had become of Mitterrand’s party.
There is still even speculation that some key PS elected officials could still defect to Macron, in the interest of bearing some influence the president’s potential second term, or out of sheer desire for survival. Having left the PS last year, on Monday the Clichy-sous-Bois mayor Olivier Klein formally announced his support for Macron.
What’s more, if there is a middle ground to be claimed between Macronism and the populist left, this space is increasingly the preserve of the Greens. Designating Yannick Jadot as their standard bearer on September 28 — thus veering away from the ecosocialist break proposed by his main rival, the economist Sandrine Rousseau — the Greens are hoping to position themselves as France’s leading center-left force.
Key victories in last year’s municipal elections in cities like Lyon and Bordeaux are giving the party the habits of governing. And while in 2017, the Greens ended up falling in behind the PS presidential candidate, if polls continue to confirm Jadot’s advantage over Hidalgo, that surely won’t be happening again. If anything, this time the pressure not to be a spoiler will fall on her. A longtime former MP and 2012–14 cities minister, François Lamy left the PS in early October to join Jadot’s campaign.
The enemy of old PS right-wingers like 2014–16 prime minister Manuel Valls, in 2017 Benoît Hamon led the last attempt to resuscitate the party, as this critic of Hollande’s presidency mounted a feint to the soft left. After his painful defeat and record low score — taking just 6 percent of the vote — he briefly launched the movement Génération.s, peeling off activists and cadres from the PS’s left wing.
Last month, Hamon retired from political life and joined Singa — an NGO which claims to confront conservative hegemony over immigration policy by promoting the entrepreneurial qualities of migrants. Hamon insists this is not the mark of defeat, but as a change of orientation. It was not hard to hear notes of the first, however, when he explained his decision to Jacobin: “Over the last several years, it appeared to me that, when it came to fighting over the values that were important for me, citizens’ organizations were a better means of changing things than classic political action.”
Caught Out in Trappes
An old confidant and chief of staff to Hamon, Ali Rabeh, was one of the officials who followed him out of the PS after the 2017 defeat. In 2020, Rabeh was elected as mayor of Trappes, a working-class suburb southwest of Paris with a large immigrant population. After Rabeh ousted the longstanding PS mayor Guy Malandain (also a former MP) from power, the city quickly became a favorite punching bag for right-wing media outlets and political figures who lambasted the supposedly rampant clientelism in the city, and a mayor who just wouldn’t get tough on Islamic “communitarianism.”
This August, the State Council seemed to justify the media torrent that had come to engulf Trappes, canceling the results of the 2020 elections on the grounds that face masks distributed by Rabeh’s supporters were not marked off as campaign finance expenditures.
In the election rerun this October 10, Rabeh was comfortably confirmed as the winner, with 58 percent in the first round. His victory also provided further reminders of the Socialist Party’s downward spiral. Ahead of the vote, longtime former mayor and old PS powerbroker Malandain went so far as to back the right-wing candidate Othman Nasrou against Rabeh — in what seems like a never-ending campaign, now that Nasrou has announced his intention to challenge the rerun results. Though Malandain left PS ranks in 2020, the party’s lack of comment about its old local strongman’s antics was telling of its driftlessness, the week before Hidalgo’s nomination.
“I have no particular animosity toward her,” mayor Rabeh told Jacobin, before remarking on a radio appearance by Hidalgo he had heard earlier in the day. “I had the impression I’m hearing François Hollande, but a few years later. You see that she has a rather bland discourse, with little actual ambition to transform society or to shift the balance of power. Clearly, it’s a discourse which has absolutely no hope of mobilizing average French people, which is an absolutely crucial condition for a victory for the Left.”
The emergence of a new generation of political leaders like Rabeh could have been taken as hope of salvation for a flailing French social democracy. For figures like Malandain, however, it was perceived solely as a threat. “There’s an old generation of PS officials from the Paris region that are very paternalist,” one prominent former PS figure told Jacobin. “They got very comfortable with their constituencies, but the new generations won’t accept being treated the same way… this guy, it’s crazy, at 84 years old he finishes his political career behind whom? Behind the Right, with a very conservative and racist message.”
Malandain’s trajectory mirrors that of a retrenched political force fighting for its survival at whatever costs. As the results of June’s regional elections show, another Macron victory, or a win for one of the many conservative candidates, could eventually lead back to something resembling the Fifth Republic’s traditional party system.
At the same time, what is increasingly looking like an also-ran campaign for Hidalgo confirms the party’s near-disappearance from the national political field. Hidalgo seems to be aware of this much — a July leak from Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that her entourage had already priced in a Macron victory, and is simply laying the ground for an eventual 2027 run.
“We need to remember that from 1971, the Socialist Party was made to win and conquer power in the Fifth republic,” the former PS official remarked. “If the PS decides to not have a candidate for the highest office of the Fifth Republic, people within and outside will finally say: ‘Well, there, now it’s official. We’re dead. So long as we have a candidate at least, we’re not dead.’”
The truth can, indeed, be hard to swallow.