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The spectacular rise and fall of Hollande’s Socialist Party

AFP archive | The logo of France's Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste)

A week after President François Hollande announced that he would not seek another term, the Socialist Party has found itself without a candidate nor a clear path forward as it scrambles to prepare for April 2017 presidential elections.


On December 2, French President François Hollande became the first leader of the Fifth Republic to announce that he would not seek re-election, leaving his Socialist Party to find another candidate for the April 2017 presidential elections. But with at least eight likely candidates competing in January’s primaries – representing a range of ideologies from the far left to former prime minister Manuel Valls on the party’s right wing – the Socialists seem to be having an identity crisis.

The five years of Hollande’s presidency have not been kind to the ruling party. Terrorist attacks, a shift to the right on domestic matters, persistent unemployment, internal party divisions and even an illicit love affair have eroded confidence in Hollande's government and left the Socialists with little in their playbook that remains popular with voters.

Hollande promised to be “Mr. Normal” after the “bling bling” presidency of brash, right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, which many French citizens found unbefitting for the resident of the Elysée Palace. But Hollande struggled from the start with an unemployment rate that hit a 13-year high in his first year in office and which has stubbornly hovered around 10 percent during much of his tenure.

Hollande’s administration was also hit with a high-profile scandal during his first year in office when his budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, was accused of tax fraud for hiding money in secret accounts stretching from Switzerland to Singapore.

Ironically, when the French media first revealed the existence of these accounts in December 2012, Cahuzac was in the process of sponsoring a high-profile bill in parliament aimed at fighting tax evasion. After a lengthy legal process, Cahuzac was convicted on Thursday and sentenced to three years in prison for tax fraud.

Macron on the move

Hollande’s choice for economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, created new problems for the president right from the start. Just 36 when he was appointed in 2014, Macron was a former investment banker at a firm owned by the Rothschild family – an unusual choice for a president who once declared that the world of finance was his “enemy”.

Macron soon angered the Socialist’s left wing with his criticisms of the 35-hour workweek and by calling for the deregulation of the French economy. Socialist deputy Yann Galut spoke for many in his party when he accused Macron of “disowning all the values of the left”.

The pro-business reforms, known as the “Macron law”, included allowing stores to remain open on Sundays and late in the evenings.

A more wide-ranging labour code overhaul, which made it easier for firms to hire or fire and to extend employee working hours, soon followed suit. The proposed reforms prompted months of sometimes violent protests over the summer from students and unions who were angry over diminished labour protections. 

Hollande’s government controversially pushed the bill through parliament in June 2016 without holding a vote, igniting a new burst of outrage.

But Macron’s rebellious streak became too much for Hollande in July, when he launched his own political movement, “En Marche!” (On the move!), while remaining in Hollande’s administration. “I’m in a left-wing government, unashamedly ... but I also want to work with people from the right, who commit to the same values,” Macron said at the time.

Hollande warned Macron against getting too ambitious. “Within a government there cannot be any personal ambitions, much less presidential ones," Hollande said in a televised interview.

Macron tendered his resignation some six weeks later. He announced his intention to seek the presidency in mid-November. 

Profile: Emmanuel Macron

Right-wing Socialism

Macron was not the only member of Hollande’s cabinet to anger the party’s leftist base. Manuel Valls, 54, who served as interior minister and then prime minister before resigning this week to announce his own presidential run, has proved that even a Socialist Party can have a right wing.

As interior minister, the Spanish-born Valls took a hard line on dismantling Roma camps in and around Paris, even defending the controversial arrest and subsequent deportation of a 15-year-old Roma girl while she was on a school field trip in October 2013. “We should be proud of what we are doing, rather than feeling sorry for ourselves,” Valls told the weekly "Journal de Dimanche," shortly after the girl and her family were deported to Kosovo.

Rights groups and even members of his own party strongly criticised the decision.

As protests against labour reforms spread across France last summer, Valls once again took a hard line, moving to ban further demonstrations in Paris after sporadic outbreaks of violence.

It was the first time since the 1960s that union demonstrations had been banned in France and it sparked outrage across the political spectrum, including within the already divided Socialist Party. After a weeklong stand-off, the unions were eventually allowed to hold a protest march via a different route.

Valls once again angered those on the political left with his strident comments in support of a controversial ban on burkini swimwear over the summer, bluntly saying that wearing a burkini was "not compatible with the values of France and the Republic".

Valls has said he wants to modernise the Socialist Party, even suggesting that it rename itself because the term “Socialist” is too “old-fashioned”. He says that a revitalised party could unite all of the country’s “progressive forces” into one movement.

But his right-wing tendencies make him a bit of an outlier, and it may prove difficult for him to unite the French left.

“He is amazingly right wing, even by very moderate Socialist standards today,” said Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, in comments to FRANCE 24 last week.

“His take on laïcité (secularism) is deeply exclusive,” Marlière said. “In my opinion, he’s very similar to Sarkozy or [National Front leader Marine] Le Pen.”

Nevertheless, Valls is the preferred candidate of leftist voters with 33 percent support, according to a December 2 Harris Interactive poll that asked respondents to choose from among eight likely primary candidates. Among Socialist Party respondents, 57 percent went for Valls.

Having been the face of many of Hollande’s more controversial policies may ultimately prove his undoing, however.

“He will never, ever unify the left and, what’s more, he can’t even present himself as a new face – as someone not associated with this Socialist debacle,” Marlière said. “He is the prime minister of a government largely rejected by the public.”

Quo vadis, Socialists?

Valls’ brand of right-wing Socialism highlights the quandary the party is facing. If Hollande is seen as representing the traditional yet ineffectual left, its more dynamic members now look like the centre-right.

As unemployment continued to hit record highs, Valls infuriated many by saying more needed to be done to encourage the unemployed to get back to work. Macron, for his part, has said that the costly system of unemployment benefits needed to be revised, blaming the unions for deadlocking negotiations.

Statements such as these, coming as record numbers of French citizens struggled with a lack of job opportunities, have heightened resentment among much of the public and divided those within the Socialist party. And they seem more like admonishments that would come from the right-wing Les Républicains party than from the fresh new faces of France's left.

The cracks in the Socialist foundation became a chasm back in June when it was announced that the party would hold a primary to decide its candidate for the 2017 presidential election – for the first time in more than 50 years, a sitting French president would be forced to compete for his party’s nomination.

But the Socialists may not have had much choice. Hollande's approval ratings have dropped to record lows for a post-war French president, at one point sinking to just 4 percent. Hollande’s lowest point coincided with the release of a tell-all book – shrewdly entitled “A President Should Not Say That” and based on private interviews with journalists – in which Hollande disparages the country’s judicial system and even the national football team. The release of the book reportedly threw the Socialist Party into a panic, prompting erstwhile supporters to criticise the president’s political naiveté.

Some on the left are now rallying their hopes behind Christiane Taubira, Hollande’s former justice minister. A petition asking her to compete in the primary has garnered almost 90,000 signatures since it was launched in early December. Taubira, 64, is a more traditional leftist who helped champion the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013. She resigned in January amid a growing rift with both Hollande and Valls that hit the breaking point over the government’s proposal to strip dual citizens of their French nationality if they are convicted of terrorism offences.

“After the disappointment left by Hollande, and faced with the rise of the populist right and the far right, who better than you to represent a combative Left, a visionary Left, a united Left? Help us!” the petition pleads.


Among the candidates congregating on the party’s left flank are former minister of industry Arnaud Montebourg and Vincent Peillon. Montebourg forced a surprise cabinet shuffle two years ago and resigned after making some very public criticisms of Hollande’s economic policies. “Like the majority of French, it is impossible for me to support the current president,” he said in announcing his candidacy in August. Peillon is a former philosophy professor who served as Hollande’s education minister from 2012-2014.

What shape the new French left will take remains an open question. Valls himself has gone so far as to warn that it is facing an existential threat.

"The left could die," he has said, citing the existence of two "irreconcilable" factions within the party – one that remains in thrall to traditional class struggle ideology, the other pragmatic and willing to reform.

The Socialists may have already resigned themselves to losing the presidency in 2017. But after the erratic Hollande years, the party now faces the task of reinventing itself as a movement that combines traditional leftist values with a fresh dynamism that is ready to meet the challenges of the future.

Additional reporting by Monique El-Faizy.

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