A socialist collapse that comes from afar

The score of 1.72% of the votes cast for Anne Hidalgo, candidate of the Socialist Party, in the first round of the 2022 presidential elections, unequivocally marks the collapse of one of the oldest partisan organizations in France, heir to the French section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) founded in 1905 at the instigation of Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde. [Refondé en 1969]the Socialist Party started after the Congress of Épinay of 1971, which François Mitterrand installed at the head.

Although history has taken many twists and turns, the end of François Hollande’s five-year term (2012-2017) opens up deep errors that have still not been rectified.

The fractures of the Holland quinquennium

The 2017 presidential elections highlight the weakening of the PS, as evidenced by the already historically low score of its candidate Benoît Hamon. The majority of party leaders, as well as government elites, support Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy. At the level of the electorate, the logic of “useful voting” comes into its own. Voters cast their votes en masse for the former economy minister of François Hollande, but also, to a significant extent, for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who subsequently attracted 16% of the voters who voted for François Hollande in the first round in 2012. .

These results underline the accentuation of the socialist family’s internal divisions under Hollande’s five-year term. These begin to emerge after the “shock” of April 21, 2002 and, even more so, the referendum for a European Constitution in 2005, where the “no” camp has strong supporters such as Laurent Fabius or Henri Emmanuelli. The speech in Le Bourget by the candidate Hollande in January 2012 crystallized a misunderstanding between the latter and his voters.

Annoyed by the security policy, climate of tension and the affairs of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency (2007-2012), most socialist voters do not want to see (or take seriously) the moderation of François Hollande’s economic and social program. His indictment of finance, which he identifies as his chief enemy, and his pursuit of greater control over toxic financial products are a matter of tactical considerations rather than fundamental conviction. The foundations of its economic program are focused on the competitiveness of SMEs and the return to balanced public finances from the end of the five-year term. The president also quickly adopted this “social-liberal” approach, announcing in November 2012 the creation of the CICE, a tax credit on corporate profits of up to 20 billion euros a year.

The deepening of this economic orientation with the appointment of Manuel Valls in Matignon in March 2014 led to the resignation of the then Minister of Economy Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, briefly Minister of National Education, a few months later. Shortly afterwards, part of the socialist parliamentary group, in turn, publicly confirmed its opposition to the “social-liberal” path personified by the prime minister and his new economy minister, Emmanuel Macron. These “rebellious” deputies opposed the government until the end of the five-year term, reflecting the weakness of the president’s leadership over the party of which he had long been the first secretary.

Although François Hollande’s economic policy was a long way from the Le Bourget speech, it is important to note the continuity of his positions on the subject. In the 1980s, close to Jacques Delors, he then proposed to meet the challenges of globalization and the deepening of European construction through a policy based on the competitiveness of companies and greater flexibility of the labor market , which would be offset by the defense of the social state, more individualized protection of workers and the development of continuous training. However, during his five-year term, his political choices on economic, social but also sovereign topics destabilize and divide his political family, firstly the proposal to lose nationality after the Bataclan attacks in 2015 and then the labor law known as the El Khomri law the following year, increasing the flexibility of the labor market.

Socialist elites are becoming increasingly detached from their electorate

How to understand these proposals that are out of step with the ideology of the traditional left? The sociological mutations of the socialist electorate offer some elements of explanation. The latter has indeed evolved considerably in recent decades.

In 1981, 72% of workers and 62% of workers voted in the second round for François Mitterrand: figures that the left has never found since.

By becoming a ruling party, the Socialists, especially after 1984 and the appointment to Matignon of Laurent Fabius, have introduced an economic policy that promotes industrial modernization, financial liberalization and the deepening of European construction, while striving to strengthen the social state. in a context of mass unemployment that affects all Western societies. These choices of the socialists in power, which have not been fully adopted and explained, help to distance the PS from the working class.

From the 1990s, these voters resorted to abstinence. A significant proportion join Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, while a small minority opt for more radical left-wing parties. Above all, the left no longer attracts the new generations of workers and white-collar workers who, after 1995, mainly and continuously vote for the right and the extreme right.

This separation from most of the working classes of the electorate is accompanied by a new break, more gradual and quiet, with the staff of the state, long a privileged bastion of French socialism. For example, since the 2000s, teachers have stopped voting en masse for the PS (with the exception of the 2012 presidential election), accusing it of taking too favorable a stance on liberal globalization and education policies that are inconsistent with their expectatitons.

Apart from some important measures taken under the governments of Michel Rocard and Lionel Jospin – [Revenu minimum d’insertion]35-hour week, universal health coverage – the party indeed assumes a supply policy aimed at the competitiveness of companies and the primacy of the regulation of economic activity by market mechanisms, with the government having to correct excesses through targeted social policy.

These political orientations deepen the divisions of the left and weaken the PS. If the latter depended on organizations such as the Communist Party or the Greens to forge ad hoc alliances according to European or local elections, it no longer succeeds in creating a dynamic, as was the case, for example, in the 1970s.

From 2017, the supposed rejection of the left-right divide by Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who at this point joined the position of the leaders of the FN who replaced it from the end of the 1990s with the opposition between ” globalists’ and ‘national’, is a blow to the PS now seen as one of the most important incarnations of the political ‘old world’.

The weakness of socialist networks

The social roots of the SFIO and then of the PS, which, unlike the social democracies of Northern Europe, were always parties of elected representatives and not of the masses, remained weak, with the exception of rare emblematic federations such as those of the North . However, the rise of the PS in the 1970s can be explained by a mobilization capacity outside the traditional town halls. The party finds relays in trade unions (the CFDT) and students (the UNEF), but also in associative circles and collaborators. It is therefore common for PS activists to also be members of the CFDT and to exercise associative functions, for example in parent associations. The PS influence on these networks disappeared long ago and the episode of the Labor Law completed the destabilization of the CFDT, which historically has been open to dialogue (which has never been easy) with the socialist government.

More generally, in the perspective of a reshuffle and a reinvention of the PS, the weakening of the intermediate bodies, which accelerated under Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term, deprives it of any leverage to end the crisis.

Another, more underground, factor can also be used to understand the growing divide between socialist elites and society. It lies in the relationship this organization has maintained with the state since the 1980s. Political scientists have denounced a phenomenon of “cartel formation”. By becoming a ruling party, the PS has increased its dependence on the state not only for its finances, which are increasingly dependent on public money, but also for its expertise in the mass penetration of senior officials at the top of the apparatus. This transformation of the PS into a “centralized semi-public body” has removed it significantly from militants and from society.

Short, medium and long term factors therefore explain the meager score of the socialist candidate in the first round of the presidential election. Since 2017, the PS has been well on the way to “pasokization”, a term that has passed into the language of the social sciences in reference to the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK), which almost completely disappeared from the political landscape after the terrible economic crisis. and social crisis that hit the country in the late 2000s. Pasokisation, however, is not synonymous with disappearance.

As many studies have shown, parties “die for a long time” and have a strong capacity for resilience, as evidenced by the timid but genuine electoral revival of certain European Social Democratic parties. PASOK itself could be a good example of a way out of the crisis for the PS: after a complicated decade, this organization is regaining its colors thanks to the reactivation of networks of elected officials and local trade unionists and the emergence of a new leader.

Through Mathieu FullaAgrégé and Doctor of History, permanent member of the Sciences Po History Center (CHSP), Sciences Po.

The original version of this article was published on The conversation