Ever since the advent of the fifth republic of France, The French ‘Parti Socialiste’ or Socialist Party has been a powerful and dominant force on the center-left of the French political spectrum. Between 1974 and 2012, the party finished either first or second in both presidential and legislative elections, except for the 2002 Presidential Election, in which they finished in third narrowly. The party has also produced two presidents, including France’s longest-serving president, Francois Mitterand.
However, in 2017 after the disastrous reign of socialist president Francois Hollande, their successor candidate, Benoit Hamon, finished a disastrous 5th, only garnering 6% of the first-round vote. Things got even worse in this year’s elections, in which their high-profile candidate, Anne Hidalgo – the Mayor of Paris – only managed to collect a dismal 1.7% of the vote. That’s the equivalent of the Australian Labor Party receiving the same vote share in May’s election. It is unthinkable.
The decline of traditional social democratic European political parties has been a widespread phenomenon throughout the continent in the past two decades. After all, the phenomenon has been given a term to describe it – Pasokification – which refers to the similar decline of Greece’s traditional center-left political party, Pasok. However, the fate and speed of the decline of France’s Socialist Party has been far more dire and rapid than almost any other similar case on the European continent.
Many political pundits have put the Socialist Party’s struggles down to chaotic party factionalism, the emergence of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left-wing populist party, La France Insoumise, as well the unpopularity of Francois Hollande’s tenure as President. However, I believe that a significant factor to blame is the Socialist Party’s enthusiastic embrace of globalization as well the Socialist Party’s deviation from their traditional labor-oriented Keynesian economics to neoliberalism.
The consequential and electorally successful reign of Francois Mitterand is characterized by the implementation of a stark combination of old-fashioned social democratic policies and an embrace of the European single currency and neoliberal economics. For instance, he spearheaded legislative initiatives such as lowering the retirement age from 65 to 60, increasing the minimum wage by 40%, and a suite of nationalizations including the entire French banking sector. Contrastingly, he was also noted domestically for the adoption of economic policies that were congruent with the neoliberal orthodoxy that was taking hold at the time, for example his shift away from augmenting wages and employment and a turn towards austerity and the devaluation of the franc in order to maintain price stability. Another key economic policy change that occured in the Mitterand years, was the Socialist Party’s embrace and pursuit of the European single currency, the Euro. This came to a head in 1992 when Mitterand signed France up to the Maastricht Treaty, which is widely seen as the agreement that was the precursor of the Euro in the twelve countries that signed it.
Although, the embrace of the single currency and neoliberal economic and trade policies led to a increase in the total size and health of the French economy, including a 189% in increase in France’s GDP between 1981 and 1995, it inflicted terrible punishment on key constituencies that made up a significant amount of the PS’ voter-base, including rural and regional areas of France as well as areas with high levels of industrialization and manufacturing. This punishment was particularly acutely felt by the aforementioned constituencies, as this embrace of globalization and European integration led to increased economic competition, which meant that France’s manufacturing sector lost its competitive advantage in certain producing goods such as cars and textiles. This is evidenced by the drop in the share of manufacturing in France’s GDP from 19% to 10% in a linear fashion from 1985 to 2015 and a decrease of the bottom 50% of France’s share of its wealth by almost 10% in the first 6 years of Mitterand’s reign.
Fast forward to 2012, the second Socialist president, Francois Hollande, comes to power on the back of the overarching unpopularity of his conservative predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy, and a radical economic plan that “declared war on the world of finance” and would implement a 75% tax on millionaires in order to fund new jobs for young people. However, in 2013, just a year after he came to power, he reneged on his social democratic policies and embraced with open arms neoliberal economic policies such as reducing government spending, handing out $40 billion of tax cuts to businesses and corporations as well deregulating the legal profession and some areas of the transport sector.
Long story short, Hollande’s presidency was deeply unpopular, evidenced by the utterly abysmal approval rating of 4% he received in November of 2016. Therefore, going into 2017, expectations for the Socialist Party were low. However, even the lowest of expectations were shattered as the party’s candidate Benoit Hamon recorded a humiliating 6% of the vote, coming 5th. Whilst many at the time dismissed this result as a by-product of Hollande’s unpopularity – after all, his approval rating was 4% – the PS’ seemingly terminal decline was confirmed in the recent Presidential Election, where Presidential candidate, Anne Hidalgo, garnered a measly 1.7% of the vote.
Thus, it is not possible to claim that the PS’ decline is totally a by-product of political infighting and the unpopularity of Hollande. Rather the PS’ shift in its economic policies to align more with the third-way neoliberal orthodoxy, has resulted in the party being caught in a lethal pincer movement with Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and Marie Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale (National Rally) taking different aspects of the PS’ traditional supporter base.
Le Pen’s nativist far-right party was an almost direct by-product of the PS’ shift away from social democratic and labor focused economic policies in the mid-1980’s. It came to prominence combining xenophobia and nationalism with economic policies that were appealing to the working class in the 1986 elections as a backlash toward the policy shifts of Mitterand, with its vote share growing from 0.2% to 9.6% between 1981 and 1986. Nowadays, the RN dominate in regions that used to be PS strongholds such as the wine-producing Occitany region in the South and the former mining and manufacturing hubs in the north-east such as the Hauts de France region.
Additionally, the PS’ voter-base, particularly amongst low-income people living in the urban areas of France such as Paris and Seine St Denis as well as well-educated young professionals and students is getting decimated from the left by the eco-socialist left-wing populist party of Jean-Luc Melenchon. Melenchon advocates for traditional socialist economics such as raising taxes on the rich, corporations and significantly bolstering the welfare state as well as ambitious and radical action on climate change.
Whilst, the permanent demise of the Parti Socialiste seems to be a fait accompli, its demise is an extreme example of Pasokification and should act as a cautionary tale to other social democratic parties around the world. The PS’ adoption of neoliberalism combined with their embrace of globalization to the detriment of key aspects of its traditional blue-collar voter base, prompted the growth of two very different yet similar populist parties. These parties have acted like a cancer on the PS’ traditional voter base, banishing this consequential and hugely important political movement to the history books.
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