Wednesday, June 06, 2007

LMD on French Left

An historical overview of the move of the French Socialists to the political centre and economic right from the excellent Le Monde diplomatique .

June 2007
PRINCIPLES, COMPROMISE AND POLITICS: France: the left looks for answers

Modernisation of the left by leaning towards the centre is not a new idea in France. But its results have not always been convincing
by Grégory Rzepski and Antoine Schwarz

After the first round of the presidential election, almost all French leader writers, including Jacques Attali in L'Express, hailed the bipolarisation of French politics around two "moderate" parties, which would at last make France a modern democracy (1). The media establishment was particularly pleased at the poor results of candidates to the left of the Socialist party (PS). Bernard-Henri Lévy saw the marginalisation of anti-free-marketeers as an opportunity to
"break the habit of calling the heirs of Lenin and Jaurès [the popular, early socialist leader] by the same name - the left".

Ségolène Royal's defeat in the second round led the same pundits to denounce the PS's doctrinal rigidity and neglect of the centre. According to Jacques Julliard, deputy editor of the Nouvel Observateur, Royal lost "because the left is too far left to expand towards the centre, the only place where it could gain reinforcements".

Talk of the modernisation and expansion of the Socialist party is primarily ideological, even when it comes from a former historian such as Julliard. Ignoring the many strategic votes in Royal's first-round total, he argued that there were no longer any reinforcements to the left of the PS. That argument is old, despite its claims to be modern. Opening up to the centre has been raised many times in the history of French socialism. Earlier attempts often proved costly, politically and in election results.

From May 1947, when Socialist prime minister Paul Ramadier sacked his Communist ministers, until General Charles de Gaulle's return to power 11 years later, France was governed by a Third Force, a coalition of Socialists and centrists who, it was said, were doomed to make common cause in the face of attacks from the Gaullists and Communists. That regime started wars in Indochina and Algeria. It also put down many strikes, including the miners' strike of 1947-48, sometimes harshly. At the time of its demise in 1958, it had few supporters, even among Socialists.

In anticipation of the election of a French president by universal suffrage in 1965, there was an attempt by modernising journalists on L'Express (Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Françoise Giroud) and technocrats from the Jean Moulin club to impose their own candidate on the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO, the Socialist party of the time): he was Gaston Defferre, the mayor of Marseille. Their aim was to resuscitate a Third Force coalition that could end the temptation of an alliance between the SFIO and the Communist party. The plan failed.

Stepping into the vacuum, François Mitterrand became the candidate of the united left in the first round of the presidential election in December 1965. He polled 32.24% of the vote, against 42.72% for de Gaulle, who was re-elected.

The election of 1969
Defferre stood in the next presidential election in 1969 with the support of Pierre Mendès France, whom Defferre had promised to make prime minister. Ideological modernisation
and financial austerity were on the agenda again. A contemporary observer described Defferre and Mendès France "sitting together behind a desk like a pair of schoolmasters doling out statistics in an economics lesson" (2). Defferre's mere 5.08% of the vote was all the more humiliating as the Communist candidate, Jacques Duclos, 73, a veteran pro-Soviet politician and gifted speaker with scant concern for orthodox management, won 21.52%. The Socialist party was founded in 1969 in the wake of this debacle. At the Epinay congress in 1971 it adopted the union of the left strategy that eventually led to Mitterrand's first presidential election
success in May 1981. He made Defferre minister of the interior.

The alliance issue arose again in 1984 when the Communists left the government. The Socialist party, which had an overall majority in the National Assembly from 1981 to 1986, became a hegemonic force on the left. In March 1983 there was a turn towards austerity that drew Socialists and centrists closer together. In June 1984 centre-right columnist Alain Duhamel congratulated Mitterrand on progress: "From 1981 to 1984 François Mitterrand has performed an impeccable ideological right-turn" (3).

The sociologist Alain Touraine, a leading light of the "second left" (4), was also satisfied: "Our government's achievement will be to have rid us of socialist ideology. France will not be transformed by the socialist-communist alliance but by an alliance between the modernising left,
with its concern for social justice, and an innovatory liberal current favouring international competition" (5).

On 17 June 1984 the Socialist party won only 20.75% of the votes, and its Communist partner only 11.20%, while the right triumphed with 43.02%. The National Front (FN), in existence
for only a couple of years, emerged as a significant political force at 10.96%, without firing a shot.

Mitterrand was re-elected president in May 1988, after two years of tense cohabitation with a rightwing government whose free-market and authoritarian excesses he had successfully
exploited. His new prime minister, Michel Rocard, formed a government open to the centre. It included Bernard Kouchner (who, despite his popularity, was incapable of getting elected to parliament in any constituency he was parachuted into) and several centre-right figures (Jean-Pierre Soisson, Olivier Stirn, Michel Durafour) who had, during Valéry Giscard's presidential term from 1974 to 1981, been members of governments led by Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre.

In his memoirs Pierre Mauroy, first secretary of the Socialist party in 1988, wrote: "For a few, the victory of 8 May 1988 meant only that the Socialists had reneged on their own values. The Communist party saw the opening to the centre as a resurgence of the Third Force - a temptation they had been denouncing for years. It is hard to say they were entirely wrong, since the terms of the opening were very vague and in many respects inexplicable" (6). As prime
minister, Rocard pursued a policy that was disputed by his own colleagues. In September 1989, the minister for equipment and transport, Michel Delebarre, argued that the Socialists were wrong to govern "in order to be awarded, in a few months or years, a good service medal for managing the country according to rightwing criteria".

A political big bang
Rocard was replaced as prime minister in 1991. Addressing a Socialist rally at Montlouis-sur-Loire on 17 February 1993, he called for a political big bang and exhorted his comrades to abandon their monolithic discourse, the rituals of a closed society and a "view of the world based entirely on production relations and class relations". He was critical of the Socialist past and proposed the creation of "a vast movement, open and modern" encompassing "all of
environmentalism's genuine reformers, all centrists loyal to a tradition of social concern, all of communism's true renovators and all of the human rights movement's selfless activists."

Rocard ended with an appeal: "A vote for our candidates on 21 March 1993 will not be a vote for the Socialist party of the past, it is a vote for future rebirth." A few months later, although he lost his seat in parliament like 80% of Socialist deputies, he was appointed first secretary of the
Socialist party and headed its list for the European parliament (EP) election of June 1994. The Socialist vote of 14.54% was their worst in an EP election.

So modernisation of the left through opening to the centre is not a new idea. Its results have not always been convincing. Yet the media and many intellectuals continue to demand that the Socialist party bring itself up to date, as the German Social Democrats did at their Bad Godesberg congress in 1959. Henri Emmanuelli, a leader of the Socialist party's left
wing, said of this demand: "We have had our Bad Godesberg. We had it at 11am on 23 March 1983 when we decided to open our borders and stay in the EMS [European Monetary System]. We chose the market economy" (7).

The objectors reply that the problem is not so much Socialist party policies since 1983 - their moderate, indeed neo-liberal, character cannot be denied - but the radical language it uses despite the constraints of the real world. At its congress at La Défence in December 1991, the Socialist party formally renounced its revolutionary aims and formulated its adherence to the market economy in theoretical terms.

In his preface to the new manifesto (8), Pierre Mauroy, then first secretary, wrote: "We have changed. Yes, we think the market economy is the most efficient means of production and
trade. No, we no longer believe in a break with capitalism. We realise that capitalism will set our horizon for the next decade and probably a great deal longer. But we are also determined to correct its excesses."

Even in its official documents the Socialist party has identified itself as reformist for at least 15 years. Not many recall the slogan "To change life" (borrowed from the poet Arthur Rimbaud), which summed up its ambitions in 1971, or remember that it once invoked "the ever-new idea of a classless society" and paid homage to its activists as "an army of volunteers arrayed against historical inevitability, marching forward with dreams of revolutions that will tip the balance of the world in favour of freedom" (9).

The glorious 1980s
The Socialist party is far from being the victim of a conservative revolution: it has made itself the instrument of that revolution. "The Socialists' glorious 1980s," the economist Frédéric Lordon wrote, "were the years of the great economic conversion. 1983: the turn to austerity - a
parenthesis that was never closed; 1984: the new purpose of nationalised enterprises is to make a profit, just like all the others, that is to end up privatised; 1984 again: the Single Act - Europe will be one large market or it will be nothing; states will submit to European law and to free,
undistorted competition; 1986: financial deregulation and the rule of the stock exchange, so refreshingly modern." The 1990s continued the process "from the single currency, Jacques Delors fashion, to Fabius-style employee share ownership, via Lionel Jospin's privatisations and Dominique Strauss-Kahn's stock options" (10).

Sometimes there was resistance, as when a group of intellectuals and essayists who already advocated a realistic free-trade approach (Pierre Rosanvallon, Alain Minc, Alain Touraine, Jacques Julliard and Laurent Joffrin) got together in 1995 to hail the Juppé plan and castigate the strikers. Rather than criticise the teaching methods of those pundits the Socialist party leaders admired, Rocard preferred to blame the poor attitude of the children they were trying to
educate: "Our historic task is to promote free enterprise. But that's not easy, since we have to do it with a people that does not understand economics" (11).

The left had strong principles: it is being asked to exchange them for vague values at the risk of shifting its mental universe to the centre, or beyond. During the recent campaign Royal promised to "rehabilitate work as a value in itself", turn the French into a "nation of entrepreneurs", and consider financing retirement pensions through collective pension funds. She castigated reliance on welfare and the punitive ideology of profit. Such openness ought to have seduced the political commentators. But for those who prescribe the limits of the politically conceivable, goodwill is never enough: their aim seems to be to take advantage of the left's every setback to undermine its unity, dreams and ambitions.

Grégory Rzepski is co-host of Action Critique Media (Acrimed), an Internet observatory critical of the media.
Antoine Schwarz is a social science researcher
(1) See Henri Maler and Grégory Rzepski, "Le sacre du printemps ou le banquet des éditorialistes", Acrimed website.
(2) François Stasse, quoted in Éric Roussel, Pierre Mendès France (Gallimard, Paris, 2007).
(3) Le Monde, 12 June 1984.
(4) At a Socialist party congress in 1977 Michel Rocard termed his brand of the left, decentralised and open, as the second left.
(5) Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 11 May 1984.
(6) Pierre Mauroy, Mémoires (Plon, Paris, 2003).
(7) In the France Inter radio programme "Objections", 9 February 1990.
(8) Un nouvel horizon, Projet socialiste pour la France (Gallimard, Paris, 1992).
(9) Socialist party, Projet socialiste: pour la France des années 80 (Club Socialiste du Livre, Paris, 1980).
(10) Frédéric Lordon, "La compulsion de répétition",, 5 May 2007.
(11) Newsweek, New York, 16 June 1997.

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