Over the past two decades, once powerful French socialists have suffered the kind of crushing electoral defeats that can remove a party from political power for good.
Lionel Jospin did so badly in the 2002 presidential election that he failed to run in the second round, allowing Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front to compete in the second round against Jacques Chirac (leaving him).
Socialist François Hollande narrowly won in 2012 to withdraw, deeply unpopular, from the next race five years later, finally ceding the Elysee Palace to his young former Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned as “neither right or left ”. During this race in 2017, the candidate of the Socialist Party Benoît Hamon obtained only 6% of the votes in the first round.
But now the party leaders can sense a glimmer on the horizon. As president, Mr Macron alienated many of his former left supporters with his economic reforms and sought support from the right on issues such as immigration and law and order.
And by allying with the Greens, the Socialists have meanwhile helped the environmentalist left to take control of several French cities, including Lyon and Marseille, in local elections last year.
“For the first time in eight years, the left has once again tasted victory,” Socialist leader Olivier Faure told the Financial Times, saying the elections showed that a broad left-green coalition was capable of taking over. power in France. “Today, no force of the left has the capacity to succeed alone.”
However, the soft-spoken Mr Faure is not seen by his party – nor by himself – as the figurehead to lead a united left-green front in the presidential election of the year. next.
Among socialists, the person most likely to take on this role is Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was convincingly re-elected to lead the capital last year and is already laying the groundwork for her presidential bid.
“Our country has reached the limits of neoliberalism”, she declared in a interview in Le Journal du Dimanche this month. “We must invent another model, that of ecological transition and an economy more concerned with the well-being of individuals and which fights inequalities.”
In the Lyon metropolis, the second largest city in France, the victorious alliance of the Green Left quickly kept an electoral promise to return the management of water supply to the public sector of Veolia when its contract expires next year. – a powerfully symbolic left turn given the precursor of Veolia, Compagnie Générale des Eaux, was created in Lyon by Napoleon III in 1853.
“Water is a common good – the most essential common good”, declared Bruno Bernard, president of the Lyon metropolis and politician of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV, the party of the French Greens).
Another plus for the left is that the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted even conservative governments in Europe and around the world to embrace old-fashioned Keynesian solutions – including massive deficit-financed public spending – to try. to limit the economic damage of successive lockouts. and business disruptions.
“Everywhere you find the state’s shock absorber being used for a crisis that would be disastrous without it,” Faure said. “The crisis shows that we need public services. You can live without DVDs, but not without cleaners, health workers or teachers. ”
The French Socialist Party was once a force to be reckoned with. At the party’s headquarters in the Parisian suburbs, the bust of the famous socialist leader of the early twentieth century Jean Jaurès, assassinated by a nationalist in 1914. But the party, like its former communist ally, is going through a difficult period. since the 1981-1995 presidency of François Mitterrand.
Not only were the socialists overtaken in popularity by the EELV, which garnered more than twice as many votes in the 2019 European elections, but they were also eclipsed by the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon – even though its star was weakened since his victory by nearly 20% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election.
Despite Mr. Faure’s insistence on the need for a common left front, some believe that the Socialists will be swallowed up by their rivals.
Pascal Lamy, a French socialist who was previously EU commissioner and head of the World Trade Organization, said the party could find itself a prey rather than a predator in the struggle for primacy with the Greens. “For the moment, in France, it is the Greens who eat the Socialists”, he declared.
There is also a risk that infighting between parties and politicians and the presidential ambitions of people such as Yannick Jadot, the leader of EELV and Mr. Mélenchon will divide the left vote in the first round of the 2022 presidential election and thus completely exclude the left from the second – exactly the fate of Mr. Jospin in 2002.
“I think that among the citizens, there is a will for the left, for social change, for cultural change, even if it is not a majority. We saw it in the municipal elections, ”said Jack Lang, a former socialist minister who now heads the Institute of the Arab World in Paris. “But at the national level, democracy is perverted by the presidential system.”
This system, which narrows the field to two in the last round of the election, tends to excite future leaders but punishes political movements that have failed to rally to a common candidate from the start. “Everyone considers himself a prophet, a future Napoleon,” mocks Mr. Lang.
The names of as many as 10 possible left-wing candidates have been launched as possible presidential candidates in recent weeks, including Ségolène Royal, another former minister who was previously a partner of Mr. Hollande and who lost the 2007 presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy.
But it is Ms Hidalgo who currently stands out from the crowd as the best chance for the socialists and the left more broadly to challenge Mr Macron, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally and anyone emerging from equally bitter struggles for the pre-eminence in the center-right.
She has so far succeeded in co-opting green support for her programs in Paris. As Mr. Faure said in December: “She would make an excellent president.”