Bitterly divided as François Hollande’s presidency nears its end, the party has dropped to fifth place in the polls.
Gérard Singer, a retired clerk in the French social security system, was queuing up for a Socialist party rally on the edge of Paris in the freezing cold, and the mood was grim. “The Socialist party is in the shit,” he sighed.
Singer had come to hear Benoît Hamon, the young leftwing outsider who is gaining ground in the party’s primary contest to choose its candidate for the presidential election in the spring. But the large crowds turning out to the final rallies before the first round of the primary vote this Sunday have done little to temper the sense of impending doom. No matter which candidate it chooses, the party seems almost certain to be defeated in the main event.
After five years under the Socialist president François Hollande, the French electorate has shifted firmly to the right. The far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the staunchly rightwing, socially conservative François Fillon of the Republicans are the favourites to reach the final round of the presidential election in May. The Socialists, meanwhile, seem to be heading for implosion, bitterly divided between pro-market modernisers and a leftwing flank that argues true Socialist values have been betrayed.
The real debate on the French left is taking place outside the Socialist party, between two charismatic figures who have made the Socialists seem irrelevant. On the centre-left, Hollande’s rebellious former economy minister Emmanuel Macron is breathing down the necks of Fillon and Le Pen with his maverick “neither left nor right” campaign, with key Socialists increasingly jumping ship to join him. And on the hard left, the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has Communist party backing, is rising in the polls, relegating the Socialists to an embarrassing and demoralising fifth place.
“The party is smashing its own face in,” said Singer. “Mathematically it has no chance of getting to the final round of the presidential election.” But he still felt it was important to vote in the primary and to take part in the debate over pensions, social security and the universal wage. “Some are saying people live longer so they have to work longer – that’s not social progress,” he said.
Another Socialist supporter, a 22-year-old law student, said: “It’s all so depressing. They’re shooting themselves in the foot. But maybe the party can rebuild itself. It has to.”
When Hollande was elected in 2012 – France’s first leftwing president for 17 years – the Socialists were riding high and had an unprecedented concentration of power. The left controlled both the assembly and the senate for the first time in history, and it held almost all French regions and a sway of major cities. But the presidency, dogged by terror attacks and stubborn mass unemployment, faced such bitter party infighting over economic U-turns that the government resorted to a controversial form of decree to ram through key laws. In December, Hollande – the least popular French leader since the second world war, with a satisfaction rating of just 4% – conceded he could not run for re-election.
The Socialist primary on 22 and 29 January is centred on three main figures. The pro-business former prime minister Manuel Valls, whose hard line on law and order and French secularism places him firmly on the right of the party, is facing a challenge from two leftwing rebels, both former ministers who were thrown out of government for criticising Hollande’s economic policy. Arnaud Montebourg, a former lawyer and finance minister, is a fierce critic of multinational companies and the European Union and wants to launch a massive state spending programme to jumpstart the economy. Benoît Hamon, a former education minister, has called for a universal basic income and wants to legalise cannabis.
Valls, forced to defend Hollande’s unpopular presidency, has been under attack on all fronts, including being accused of not taking enough refugees into France. “I want to break the spirit of defeatism and create some hope,” he has said. An 18-year-old who slapped Valls during a campaign trip to Brittany this week was fast-tracked through the courts and handed a three-month suspended sentence and 105 hours of community service. On a radio phone-in, one caller told Valls: “There are 66 million French people who want to give you a slap.”
It’s not just Hollande’s weak leadership that has left the Socialists in such a dire state. Social democratic parties across Europe are in crisis. But observers argue that the French Socialist party has never successfully addressed its fundamental divide between free-market economic policy in government and its more leftwing traditions.
Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist with Sciences Po university and a specialist on the French left, said the current Socialist party of government, as refounded by François Mitterrand in 1971, was dead. “It risks being relegated to a very small party whose role no one is clear of,” he said.
For him, the party had for decades failed to confront its weaknesses or debate where it stood on the thorny question of free-market, pro-business policy. It had managed to just about hold itself together because it had no major competition, but now it faced outside challenges on the centre-left and the leftwing, Grunberg said.
“Some within the Socialist party felt it was going too far right; others felt it was too far left. But because the party hadn’t wanted to resolve that problem for 20 to 30 years, it is now backed into a corner at the wrong moment and it’s tragic.”
Some party supporters were trying to stay optimistic. “The French left isn’t dead, no way,” said Sara Nabet, 22, another law student. “Even if the Socialists are not in power for the next five years, they will reinvent themselves. There has to be renewal.
“I’m not angry at François Hollande. I think we’ll miss him. I saw him the other day at an inauguration. He looked so sad. I wish I’d shouted out to him: ‘We’re proud of you!’”
Socialist primary: the main candidates
Manuel Valls The former prime minister, 54, is a fiery, self-styled law-and-order strongman who helped craft Hollande’s pro-business reformist line. But he is at odds with many on the leftwing. He has always been firmly on the party’s right, and his economically liberal approach has been likened to Tony Blair’s.
Arnaud Montebourg Ejected from government in 2014 after opposing Hollande’s economic policy, the 54-year-old is a staunch leftwinger. He is thunderous orator and has a theatrical side — as a government minister he posed in a striped Breton sailor top to insist more must be done to protect the notion of “Made in France”. His anti-globalisation, protectionist stance has made him popular.
Benoît Hamon The furthest left of the candidates and, at 49, the youngest. He wants to reduce the working week from 35 to 32 hours, levy a tax on robots and provide a monthly universal basic income. He has accused politicians on the right and left of twisting French secularism to discriminate against French Muslims. Once seen as the outsider candidate, his popularity and poll ratings have risen sharply during the campaign.
Vincent Peillon The MEP and former education minister stepped into the race after Hollande announced he would not run for re-election. Peillon, 56, is vying for the centrist vote: he is pro-EU and has criticised Valls for a restrictive policy on refugees and a hardline stance on secularism, which he said was being used to stigmatise Muslims.