France’s Once-Mighty Socialist Party Must Change or Die

Once a major national force, today’s French Socialist Party finds itself outcompeted by both the radical left and neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron. But last month’s congress shows many leaders would rather kill the party than sign up for radical policies.

Johanna Rolland, Olivier Faure, Helene Geoffroy, Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, and Emma Rafowicz hold up a rose, the symbol of the Socialist Party, during the closing ceremony of the party's congress in Marseille this January. (Laurent Coust / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The French Socialist Party congress in Marseille in late January was marked by a show of unity between two camps who had just over a week before seemed irreconcilably opposed. January 19 had seen a divisive election for the leadership, with incumbent first secretary Olivier Faure edging out Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the Socialist mayor of Rouen, by just under four hundred votes. Almost immediately, there were accusations of fraud and a promise to contest the election. But a recount released on January 29 confirmed Faure’s victory — this time, five hundred ahead.

Yet the proceedings did little to resolve contradictions in the once-mighty ranks of French Socialism, after nearly a decade of decline. A unifying “orientation text” was adopted, which does little but paper over the fundamental division in its ranks. On one side of the rift is the faction led by Faure, which wants to maintain the federation of the Left known as the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES) and which supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon for prime minister in last year’s parliamentary elections. Against this stands an old-guard faction, which is ideologically and constitutionally opposed to the radicalism of Mélenchon and his party La France Insoumise (LFI), and by extension NUPES. The settlement at the Marseille congress looked like little more than a tactical retreat by this anti-NUPES faction, which knows that, for now, it holds a minority position in the party.

The Socialists weren’t always the junior partner on the Left. As recently as 2012, the party won the presidency and an unprecedented 280 seats in the National Assembly. They governed as part of a near impregnable 331-seat majority — a year before, they’d won a majority in the Senate. In 2008, they won a large popular vote plurality in the municipal elections and governed a clear majority of France’s cities with populations over a hundred thousand people.

Then 2017 came.

Under President François Hollande’s five-year reign, the Socialist Party was hobbled by its constant betrayals of the left-wing electorate, from its scrapping of the tax on big fortunes, to its undemocratic passage of the so-called El Khomri law, a vicious attack on France’s worker-friendly employment code. Hollande, who had won the presidency handily five years before, promising to make finance his number one enemy, was so unpopular that he didn’t even bother to run for reelection. The party’s reputation was in the mud, and it’s pretty much stayed there. As Faure put it in a speech at the Marseille congress, “Many of our fellow citizens think . . . [that a Socialist is] an aspiring minister . . . or a traitor-to-be.”

Emmanuel Macron, who was Hollande’s economy minister for much of the second half of his presidency, represented the course the party was on when he notoriously announced in 2016 that he was not a socialist. It came as no surprise to anybody paying attention, and the most intelligent and sophisticated members of the right wing of the party joined him as he launched the “pop-up movement,” En Marche!, which swept him to the presidency in 2017.

Their departure could have been a welcome opportunity for the Left to reassert itself as the party’s leading force. And the unexpected primary victory of Benoît Hamon, who ran on reducing working time, a universal basic income, and a tax on robots, seemed like an indication that this was the direction the party was headed.

But Mélenchon rose in the polls and Hamon fell, and even faced with certain elimination in the first round, Hamon refused to take a chance on victory by uniting with Mélenchon, who surged on strong debate performances and a rising sentiment throughout the country of dégagisme (roughly, “throw-em-out”ism). Hamon ended up with a measly 6.4 percent of the vote. Mélenchon won 19.58 percent and missed out on the second round by just over a million votes. Hamon had 2.2 million votes. After the election, Mélenchon would say that if only Hamon had made the choice he should have made, Hamon would have been prime minister and Mélenchon president.

Instead, Hamon left the party to form a stillborn outfit called Génération•s with the vague goal of “refound[ing] and gather[ing] the Left. The Socialist Party was wiped out in the parliamentary elections, and Macron’s reign began. His reelection last spring had a similar dynamic. This time, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, put on a performance that made it clear how little justification the party had for running a candidate: she scored just 1.75 percent — 616,478 votes. Once again, this was well above the extra numbers Mélenchon needed to edge out the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to make the run-off.

French Socialism Redux

The party has seen its share of acrimony before. Back in 2008, the Socialists also had a contentious leadership election. The contest between Martine Aubry, the powerful mayor of Lille, and Ségolène Royal, the party’s presidential candidate in 2007, was filled with confused declarations and contradictory reports from representatives of both candidates.

Flipping through a by-the-minute news report from the night of the 2008 vote shows shifting accounts, conflicting statements, various expressions of unity and division, and a laundry list of then leading figures in the party popping up everywhere. It’s a who’s who of the former future of the Socialist Party: now its past.

Royal’s loyal lieutenant was Manuel Valls, Hollande’s future prime minister.

“We won’t let them steal victory,” Valls announced gravely, threatening legal action to settle alleged irregularities in the vote, just as Mayer-Rossignol’s team would twelve years later.

Hamon shows up in this scene, too. He voted for Aubry, but the night before said he would neither “cry victory” if his candidate won, nor “enter into resistance” if Royal triumphed.

Valls would become one of the candidates Hamon defeated in the 2017 primary. The candidates in that contest had pledged to support its victor, but instead Valls rallied behind a candidate outside the party — Macron. He was one of an early crop of high-ranking Socialist figures to disavow the primary winner. Since then, Valls has tumbled in a series of increasing debasements as he hunts for political power somewhere — anywhere. At one point, he spoke seriously of a run for mayor of Barcelona, his hometown across the Spanish border. In 2022, he ran for an overseas seat for Macron’s party and lost. Later, he showed up at Macron’s inauguration, allegedly scouting for a position in his new government. It was unclear at the time whether he’d been officially invited.

For her part, in 2022, Royal surprised many by spending the presidential election cycle on television calling for votes for Mélenchon — not the Socialist candidate, Hidalgo.

After Hidalgo’s embarrassing defeat in the presidential contest, Faure finally opted for a change of course: uniting with Mélenchon for the parliamentary elections. The fruit of that alliance was NUPES — which united Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the Greens, the French Communist Party, and the Socialist Party, as well as sections of some Trotskyist parties.

Faure’s decision staved off near certain electoral doom for the Socialists and a further decimation of the party. They were already heavily indebted after their historically bad performance in 2017, and had sold their historic headquarters on the Rue de Solférino in Paris, not far from the National Assembly, for €45.5 million.

Wanting to avoid further humiliation, Faure has become the biggest defender of the NUPES deal, moved closer to Mélenchon, and encouraged the continuance of the union. This is the major sticking point between him and his enemies in the party, who accuse him of making the Socialists a mere tail to France Insoumise.

Mayer-Rossignol, then, was the representative of a “third path” between the pro-NUPES line of Faure and the anti-NUPES line of Hélène Geoffroy, the mayor of the Lyon suburb Vaulx-en-Velin. Geoffroy came third in the first round of the leadership vote. She represents a more distinctly anti-NUPES, anti-Mélenchon line in the party, which rejects a union of the Left, while Mayer-Rossignol calls for a fantastical continued union of the Left with the now-diminutive Socialist Party somehow at its center.

“The stakes of the Socialist Party Congress cannot once again be reduced to a clash . . . for power,” reads a column signed by a hundred fifty elected Socialist politicians ahead of the leadership vote. The text is called “Refoundations,” and though it doesn’t mention Mélenchon or France Insoumise, it’s clearly aimed against them. It calls, for instance, for a “radicalism which won’t be able to be confused with the demagogies or populisms which lead to chaos.” And it calls NUPES simply an electoral agreement, the product of the “comatose state” of the “ecological and social left.”

This is the language of the center-left hatred of Mélenchon: he represents the embarrassment of their project, and discredits their proposition that the left-wing electorate in France wants to move to the center.

Last March, Hidalgo called Mélenchon’s calls for nonalignment an example of how he’s “indulgent with dictators.”  In September, Mayer-Rossignol condescendingly described Mélenchon’s project as “selling a dream.” For her part, Geoffroy calls Mélenchon’s proposition to reduce the retirement age to sixty “a heresy,” which “isn’t credible.”

Mélenchon’s forceful denunciations of NATO, growing privatization, police violence, and these center-left forces’ cowardly submission to the racist and reactionary drive in French society makes them his implacable enemy. These camps are fighting not only over the influence of a man, but over the direction that influence will have over their own party.

It was the specter of Mélenchon, then, that hovered over the Socialist conference. The disarray in the party’s new, scaled-down Ivry-sur-Seine headquarters represents a near total victory for Mélenchon, who since leaving the party over a decade ago has openly aimed to supplant them as the leading force on the Left. The threat of a split by the flank led by Mayer-Rossignol would endanger the Socialist Party’s future existence, but it would also be little more than the rump of a rump. In the 2008 conference election, it was 150,000 votes being fought over. In the January 2023 tally, less than 25,000 votes were in play.

Change or Disappear

The Socialist Party has a choice to make: between dissolution, an even narrower existence as a groupuscule of careerists functionally and ideologically indistinguishable from the “left-”Macronists, or victory within the context of a left alliance that can only be led by France Insoumise. It bears repeating: there is no possible left alliance in France today that isn’t led by Mélenchon’s formation. The Socialist Party can never be at the heart of such alliance.

The Socialists’ turn hasn’t come from nowhere. No one can ignore the track record of privatizations that François Mitterrand initiated as Socialist president in the 1980s, deflating the hopes laid in postwar France’s first left-wing head of state. This party had already long served the ruling class as a powerful counterbalance to the French Communists — and a plan B for those worried about this more radical force rising to power. These are all the defining characteristics of its history. But the militants who have made up the Socialist Party over the years aren’t all dupes or rubes. There was a reason why even politicians like Mélenchon once saw them as a vehicle. The electorate that voted for that Hollande from the Left knows this and doesn’t need to kid itself any longer. The only path to victory for the Left in France is what they were chanting in front of Socialist headquarters back in 2008: Unity, Unity, Unity.

“This congress hasn’t resolved the question of which line to take,” Sébastien Duhem, the leader of the Lille Socialists told La Voix du Nord ahead of the Marseille congress. The results of that conference affirm a pro-NUPES line by clearly reelecting Faure — but there are tensions lurking underneath. Mayer-Rossignol’s line was only defeated because Geoffroy agreed to take her supporters out of the voting. This was the tactical retreat I mentioned earlier. Geoffroy knows she doesn’t have the support for her position — she’s been against NUPES from its inception. But that she hasn’t left yet means she isn’t ready to give up fighting for it yet.

Patrick Mennucci, a Geoffroy supporter who rejects the NUPES alliance and France Insoumise, warned Libération of an authoritarian drift within the party under Faure. “[He] isn’t Mélenchon but he’s becoming him, without the class or the political level. The only way to get out of this is through a political accord. If not, people will leave.”

The Socialist Party can take a line of union with NUPES, and let people like Mennucci and Geoffroy leave, however long that takes them to do, or they can look forward to another decade of defeat and disintegration. Who knows? Maybe the next party congress will only have to fight over 2,500 votes. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: a split is coming.