Where is the Left?

Yes, François Hollande has been elected President of the Republic. Yes, the Parti Socialiste (PS) controls all the major institutions. But since there is nothing very socialist about the PS, is it still a Left party?

After the defeat, the debate. A few after losing the Elections to the PS, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is now experiencing the same crisis the PS underwent in 2007: fight for leadership and ideological questioning. On the moderate side, François Fillon, former Prime Minister; on the radical side, Jean-François Copé, UMP General Secretary. While the media concentrates on this battle and on the first steps of new President François Hollande, they tend to forget that the ideological corpus of the Left is also constantly moving.

The first blows to the traditional social-democrat line of the PS were inflicted by Ségolène Royal who defied the old figures of the party. Her tactic, based on the massive support of the younger members, helped her win the party nomination in 2006 but failed when she tried to be elected as the head of the PS in 2008. Her defeat symbolised the revenge of the party establishment who united behind Martine Aubry. But Aubry learned from Royal’s efforts and tried to modernise the forty-year old institution. She reformed the process of nomination for PS candidates for the Presidential Election and instated an open primary.

It was a success: the PS managed to garner media attention for weeks before the Primary Election, over two million people came to vote and the winner François Hollande was then carried by a wave of popularity that helped him win the Presidential Election. But the true achievement of the primaries was the ideological debate within the PS. Six candidates were present: Aubry argued for the traditional party platform, Manuel Valls for the liberal wing, Arnaud Montebourg pleaded for another type of globalisation, Jean-Michel Baylet defended the colors of the small Left Radical Party (an ally to the PS) and Royal tried to revive her youth movement but lost it to her ex-partner, Hollande, who finally secured the nomination.

The victory of Mr. Hollande emerged as the best compromise among the different ideologies. He synthesised and united the diversity of the Socialists behind his platform. This taste for compromise attracted violent criticism: Aubry qualified him as “soft” and compared his compromises to a lack of ideas. Are such attacks true? Is it possible to ideologically define Hollande? During his service as the PS first secretary, unlike Tony Blair’s Labour Party or Gerhard Schröder’s SPD, he did not embrace the Third Way rhetoric and remain within the traditional social-democrat corpus. At this time, while Britain and Germany implemented liberal policies, PS Prime Minister Lionel Jospin defended the 35-hour week of work.

This choice assured for a long time the domination of the PS over the French left field, while in Germany a new left appeared. Die Linke (The Left Party) knew its first success criticising the SPD during the 2005-2009 Grand Coalition with Angela Merkel. The subprime crisis helped this movement spread over Europe, most notably in Greece where the SYRIZA party and its leader Alexis Tsipras won 23% of the seats in the Parliament. In France, the Front de Gauche (FG), the far left coalition, and its candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon were the surprise during the 2012 campaign. Mélenchon and his golden tongue attacked at the same time the right, the extreme-right but also the PS for being too timid on the economy. Mélenchon’s “Keynesian” platform was close to Mr. Mitterrand’s 1981 ideas of economic stimulus through state investments, taxing the most well off and declaring war on the liberals in the EU. He soon gathered many PS-supporters and finally managed to score over 11% of the votes, significantly more than the 2% that the Communist Party won in 2007.

The truly-Keynesian posture of Mélenchon raised some questions about Hollande’s platform. If the former is closer the 1981 François Mitterrand, many fears that the latter will likely be like 1983 version of the Socialist President and be forced to implement measures of austerity. But, contrary to Mitterrand, Hollande did not pledge to “change life” during his campaign. Since the beginning, he has known too well that the new President would not have as much leeway to govern. Instead, he preferred to defend normality and tried to appear as rigorous as incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Overall, his platform was, as always, one of compromise. On the one hand, he defended traditional Left position: the 75% tax for revenues over 1 million euros a year and 60,000 new hires for education. On the other hand, he took care to finance every new expense with a cutback. Last week, the Government announced that all ministries, except Education, Justice and Interior Ministries, will have to reduce its number of civil servants.

This will lead the PS a step further towards the center of the political field. With the 1980’s turn towards social-democracy, the PS was already at the centre-left. Now that the liberal doctrine of the EU and the free-market are imposing forces on the member States, the PS will be closer and closer to the centre-right. It should have been no surprise then that François Bayrou pledged his support for Mr. Hollande in the second round of the Presidential Election. Many centrists agree with the social Right’s progress for which Mr. Hollande is pleading such as same-sex marriage and adoption, and disagree with the much more conservative turn of the UMP. Meanwhile, this step to the right might help Mélenchon’s Left Front to rally the disappointed leftists and stabilise the political spectrum.

But of course, all this positioning is relative and most of the future evolution will depend of the redefinition of the right-wing ideology. This is why the UMP is now at the centre of the attention, although it is definitely not the only party re-defining itself.


  1. The Parti Socialiste is made up of several currents of thoughts and not all of them are sharing the current line. The next party conference in october will set what’s gonna be the PS under Hollande.


  2. Of course, the PS is not completely united ideologically. But as Prime Minister Ayrault and party leader Aubry are united for the future congress, I cannot see any alternative line emerging. Some figures of the party are likely to make propositions for sure (like Benoît Hamon) but I sincerely doubt these voices are going to change the party & government platform.
    Only few things about the Congress remain still unknown. We do not know yet the candidate to Aubry’s succession. My money will be on Aubry herself, despite what she says. And we cannot know whether Hollande will have to change his policies towards a more liberal approach like Mitterrand in 1983. On this last subject, Hollande is in my opinion relatively safe as he won the election with a very moderate economic platform.

    So, except in a last minute twist of event, I do not believe the PS congress will dramatically change the party organisation or ideology.


  1. […] on the state of French political parties. For the first article, “Where is the Left?”, click here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Filed Under: Domestic, […]

  2. […] article is part of an Opinion series on the state of French political parties. The first part discussed the ideological dynamic of the Left and the second part was on the challenges to come […]

  3. […] article is the last of part of an Op-Ed series on the current state of French political parties. The first part discussed the ideological dynamic of the Left and the second part the challenges to come for the […]

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