Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Left Out: A History of the French Right and Left

Left Out: A History of the French Right and Left
 Philip Nord
Professor at Princeton University

Two figures loom on France’s political stage as the 2022 presidential elections approach, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Le Pen has a pedigree both personal and political. She is heir to a right-wing movement, the Front National, today rebranded as the Rassemblement National, which was founded by her father. The RN, in turn, is anchored in a yet deeper political past that tracks its origins back through Poujadism (populist right-wing movement) and the leagues of the 1930s, to the Nationalist Right that made its debut at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. This current of opinion has expressed itself in many organizational forms-the League, the Font, and now the Rassemblement-, but it always espouses a nationalism with a hard, xenophobic edge and strikes an anti-establishment pose, scorning party politics as a rigged game that works to the benefit of the well-connected, but never to that of the little guy. Macron, by comparison, is a newcomer. It’s not just that he is young, but that he sits atop a party, La République en marche, that seems to have no political antecedents at all. But appearances are deceiving, for Macron’s profile is not such a new one as all that. He graduated from Sciences Po and ENA (France’s National School of Administration) before entering the public arena, tracing a career trajectory bearing a familiar resemblance to that of the classic postwar French public official - a haut fonctionnaire - turned politico. Think Jacques Chirac and François Hollande. These are men trained in public administration who know how to work the levers of the state and manage economic affairs. In this respect, Macron also has a pedigree and a distinguished one at that.

That said, neither Le Pen, nor Macron is a carbon copy of those who came before. She poses as a friend of Israel and concentrates her fire on immigrants, not Jews. Germany was the bugbear of the old, Nationalist Right, but Le Pen’s is Europe, the phalanx of Brussels bureaucrats who enforce the EU’s rules, and the globalizing world beyond. As for Macron, he’s had banking experience and leavens the public service ethos he was trained in with a sensitivity to what the market can do. The state still needs to take the lead, as it has since the days of France’s New Deal after World War II, but at the same time, it has to relax its grip-to privatize and deregulate-in order to sharpen France’s competitive edge in a globalizing environment. 

At first glance, Le Pen and Macron could not be more unlike: she, the nationalist; he the so-called neoliberal. One speaks for those who have lost out to globalization, the other for those who are part of (and beneficiaries of) France’s globalizing push. The exigencies of electoral politics have, of course, softened some of the differences. Both candidates have set their sights on winning over the constituency of the Classic Right, a terrain now occupied by Les Républicains, and to win over such voters, each has proven adept at making adjustments. Le Pen has moderated her anti-Europe animus; Macron has gotten tough on immigration and stood up for the police. Whose strategy will prove the winning one remains to be seen.

The communist and socialist parties of today are but shadows of what they had once been. How did this happen?

But there is something missing in this picture, and for the historically-minded, it is a glaring absence. In October 1945, in France’s first postwar legislative elections, the Parti communiste français and the Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (the predecessor of today’s Socialist Party) between them garnered almost half the votes cast. The communist and socialist parties of today are but shadows of what they had once been. How did this happen?

The Party’s decline is the easier of the two to account for. It exited the war crowned in Resistance glory. Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress and the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 tarnished the reputation of the USSR and, by association, communist parties elsewhere, the PCF included. But it was not until the 1970s that the Party’s fortunes really took a turn for the worse. It is tempting to chalk up the tumble to bad tactical choices. The PCF entered into an electoral alliance with François Mitterrand’s Parti socialiste in the hope of siphoning working-class votes away, but the ploy backfired. Mitterrand won the 1981 presidential election, and the PS garnered an outright majority in the legislative contest that followed, thanks in part to labor voters who did not desert its banners, just the reverse. 

Yet, the PCF had deeper-seated problems than electoral miscalculation. It defined itself as the party of the working class, the industrial working class, and it aligned itself with the Soviet Union, the motherland of the proletarian revolution. The 1970s, however, were a catastrophic decade for labor in the core economies of the industrial West. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 were blows, substantive as well as symbolic, to Western economic preeminence. Almost everywhere, the manufacturing sector began to shrink, as industry relocated to the global South in search of cheap labor. The core economies did not cease to grow, but growth was now uneven, concentrated no longer in the smokestack industries of old but in the high-tech, service, and financial sectors. The working class did not disappear as a result, but its profile changed, and in a way that the PCF, so dependent on the votes of industrial workers in a deindustrializing era, proved unable to cope with. Then came the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. The PCF’s ultimate goal was the overthrow of capitalism, but without the Soviet Union on hand, was it possible to imagine a world beyond the horizons of capitalism?

The PS didn’t think so and said as much at its 1991 congress. For the present moment, a party declaration affirmed, "our historic horizon is bounded by capitalism." The concession did not prove fatal to reform-minded socialists the way it did to communists who still harbored dreams of le Grand Soir, of the Revolution. In fact, the fin de siècle appeared a moment of breakthrough, even triumph for reformist socialism. The party had repositioned itself in the 1960s and 1970s, holding on tight to its traditional labor constituency but opening itself at the same time to the energizing radicalism of the so-called New Social Movements born of the long ’68: feminism, anti-nuclear activism, and environmentalism. Add in Mitterrand’s wily deal-making and personal skills, and the combination proved a winning one, as the electoral results of 1981 demonstrated. 

And yet problems would soon set in. Mitterrand’s first septennate taught a hard lesson: that welfare-state expansion, so central to the socialist mission and agenda, was inflationary and that, given the globalization of financial markets, a mid-sized power like France did not have the requisite tools to right the fiscal situation except by backing down. There was also a political dimension to the challenge facing French socialists, indeed, socialists everywhere. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had a recipe for how to manage capitalist economies in a globalizing world: privatize, deregulate, make it easier for investment to pool and flow where it was needed. Economic growth was the objective, and let the Devil take the hindmost. The formula seemed to work, powering forward the conversion of outmoded industrial economies into financialized and information-based ones nimble enough to compete on the world stage.

Socialists, of course, couldn’t embrace such free-market fundamentalism outright, but they might borrow a deregulating page or two from it. What if labor markets were loosened up, welfare benefits pared back, and the burden of taxation lightened? That might jumpstart sluggish economies and boost job creation, even while preserving core welfare services. Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, the major proponents of such Third Way socialism as it came to be called, were not French, but they had French equivalents. 

Third Way socialism did too little to help out an ailing and shrinking industrial working-class, and so working-class voters began to drift. 

Third Way socialism was at once a success and a disaster. It was a success in that it imparted a modern look to the socialist appeal, one in tune with the free-market impulses so pervasive a quarter century ago, and the appeal helped socialists win elections…in the short term. The long term proved to be another matter. Deindustrialization ate away at the PS’s base in organized labor, as it had eaten away at the PCF’s. Third Way socialism did too little to help out an ailing and shrinking industrial working-class, and so working-class voters began to drift. They abandoned la vieille maison, as Léon Blum had once called the socialist party, heading to the anti-system Left or to Lepenism. Even the party’s middle-class support faltered. The PS relied on the votes of public-sector employees and civil servants, but its privatizing and deregulating experiments exposed such people to the chill winds of the private labor market, if not to outright unemployment. Had the job creation so much touted by Third Way socialism in fact materialized, that might have staunched the general hemorrhaging of support, among middle-class people as among workers, but high levels of unemployment persisted. The PS had sold its socialist birthright for a mess of pottage, or so it seemed to many erstwhile loyalists.

Globalization played havoc with the Left, which is still struggling to chart a viable political path forward in a post-industrial France. The Left’s fragmentation and retreat are no doubt temporary, but with the Left out, it is the Center with its technocratic promise to manage things right, and the far Right echoing its timeworn slogan of France for the French, which are for now setting the pace of presidential debate. 



Copyright: Eric CABANIS / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English