No. 14: July-December 2015

Frédéric Sawicki

French Socialist Party

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the French Socialist Party?

The French Socialist Party (PS) seems now weaker than ever, just three years after its candidate having won the presidential election and after the PS having secured the majority in the National Assembly. While it is quite common that governing parties lose intermediary elections, the magnitude of the losses has been unprecedented since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. Losing half of the city and county councils under its control, the PS is also deprived of significant financial resources and permanent jobs (around 1000). Thus, in absence of organic links with trade unions, the strength of the PS is traditionally based on its networks of locally elected people. Moreover during the same period of time, 40.000 of its members left the party. Its membership is now officially around 120.000, but only half of them voted in May 2015 to define party’s line and choose the party leader.

The decline of the PS and François Hollande’s governement is definitely part of the general downturn of all social democratic parties in Europe, which seem unable to reform the welfare state and the taxation system otherwise than by using the same methods as the conservative and liberal parties. More and more of their traditional voters - especially the members of the working class and public employees - consider them as incapable to contain the effects of the financialization and of the globalisation of the economy. In France, the rather narrow leeway of the socialists after their election is also caused by the rising public debt (from 65% of GDP in 2007 to 90% in 2012) and a considerable budget deficit (5,3% of GDP in 2011) which was taken over from the Sarkozy period. The European fiscal solidarity treaty, which has been signed two months before the French presidential election by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, appeared to be a sort of poisoned gift. Hollande’s failure to impose a re-negotiation of the Treaty led him to increase taxes and to sharply diminish public expenses just after his election.

One may wonder whether these measures would have been accepted if they had been clearly announced during the election campaign, and if they hadn’t been quickly imbalanced by important subsidies to the business sector. Five months after the election, the government adopted a supply-side policy based on the mantra of competitiveness and on Helmut Schmidt’s theorem: "The profits of today are the investments of tomorrow and the jobs of the day after tomorrow! It should be remembered that before the election, the PS considered the problem of the French economy’s competitiveness as being above all linked to the banking system and to the preference of the French industry for low quality products. That was the reason why the PS manifesto gave priority to the creation of a new public bank dedicated to investments, to a strict separation between merchant banks and investment banks, to fiscal measures encouraging private research, and to a reform of the professional training system (the French system being notoriously costly, unfair and inefficient).

By adopting a new political rhetoric encouraging corporate entrepreneurship and by arguing that labour costs are actually the main cause for the lack of competitiveness of the French economy, the government adopts and legitimizes the language of the right-wing parties and of the National Confederation of French employers (MEDEF). If we add to this important budget cuts and the abandon of a tax reform, one can easily understand why the PS has been given up by a considerable part of its voters.

Of course, many other decisions (for instance the school schedule reform) or, on the contrary, discarding some electoral promises (for example to provide to non-EU foreigners the right to vote in local elections, or to shut down the oldest French nuclear power plant in Alsace), as well a few political scandals, have also contributed to a significant decrease in trust. However, by concentrating all its communication on its economic policy, and by arguing that this policy is a pre-condition for any social reform, the socialist government became inevitably assessed by its sole economic results. Unfortunately, during the first three first years of its mandate, the unemployment has increased by 800.000 people.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

The structure of the French political system allows the president to apply policies, which have not been previously approved by his own party. The primary election organized for the first time by the PS in 2011 for selecting its presidential candidate, reinforced the president’s autonomy. Indeed, selected by 3 millions voters and not by just 150.000 party members, the winner feels later free to refer or not to the party program. That’s why François Hollande was able to impose to the PS a political shift without even consulting its members. Despite his lack of popularity (according to polls only 20% of the French people say the president is trustworthy), and in spite of the protest of almost 50 left-wing socialist MPs (18% of the party’s MPs) against what they call “a counter-productive austerity policy” and “gifts without counterparts to the business sector”, the president has kept the course.

By nominating in April 2014 a new Prime Minister (Manuel Valls) and in August 2014 a new minister of Economy (Emmanuel Macron), both openly in favour of so-called social-liberalism, and by letting the members of the socialist left wing and of the Green party exit the government, Hollande tied his hands and condemned himself to expect a turnaround of economic conjuncture and a mutual neutralization of his two main adversaries… Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen who are both fighting to convince the rightist voters.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

If the PS should lose the next national (presidential and legislative) elections, and even more if its candidate should not be qualified for the second round, we can expect a great crisis which could lead to a party split. The social-liberalism and its proponents would be considered as being the main responsible for the defeat. In such a situation the PS would be more or less in the same situation as the Labour party in the UK or the SPD in Germany. However, if François Hollande and the PS, to everyone’s surprise, should win the election, the social-liberalism orientation will probably also result in an important recomposition of the left in favour of the "modernists".                         

  1. -    -     -     -

Frédéric Sawicki is professor of political science at the Université Paris 1-Sorbonne, France.

© Copyright: click here                                        Join our discussion group on LinkedIn