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France's Socialists Adopted Neoliberalism and Punched their Tickets to Irrelevance

France was one of the last countries in Western Europe to elect a social democratic government after the war. When François Mitterrand became the country’s president in 1981, he established the Parti Socialiste (PS) as a regular party of government. For the next thirty-six years, the French Socialists took turns in office with their conservative rivals.

But the old party system collapsed in the last presidential election and doesn’t seem to be coming back. The PS candidate Benoît Hamon dropped to fifth place with a single-digit vote share, and the party’s current standard-bearer, Anne Hidalgo, is flatlining ahead of this year’s presidential election.

What was the history that brought the French left to its current state of crisis, and does it show what other countries are going to experience in the future?

Fabien Escalona is a journalist for the French publication Mediapart. This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

DF: What was the position of French socialism when the Parti Socialiste (PS) was launched in 1969, replacing the old SFIO [French Section of the Workers’ International]? And how did it relate to the French Communist Party, which was much larger at the time?

FE: In 1969, the SFIO was very weak. Its electoral performance at the presidential election that year was a disaster, with only 5 percent of the vote. The performance in the legislative elections the previous year had been less catastrophic, but the party belonged to a wider center-left coalition, which got a little over 16 percent of the vote, behind the French Communist Party (PCF), which got 20 percent.

Ever since France’s liberation from Nazi occupation, the Socialists had been outstripped by the PCF, having previously been the leading force of the labor movement before the war. France was thus one of the few West European countries, along with Italy and Finland, where the Communist Party dominated the class cleavage. The Socialists were quite close to the Communists at the very start of the postwar period, but after 1947 and the beginning of the Cold War, they allied with other parties of the center and right to prevent the PCF from becoming part of any governmental coalition.

Things became more complicated after 1958 because of the regime change that ended the postwar Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle was called on to put an end to the Algerian crisis and he established a Fifth Republic, which was based on a much more presidential logic. You had a new regime with electoral rules that encouraged polarization between right and left, with less space for centrist coalitions than there had been during the Fourth Republic. The Socialists no longer had an effective strategy and needed to move closer to the Communist Party.

DF: When François Mitterrand became the dominant figure in the party during the 1970s, what was his strategy for the conquest of power, and what was he hoping to achieve in office?

FE: Mitterrand was a man of the Fourth Republic, but he provided the Socialists with a strategy that was very well adapted to the new institutions. He combined a critique of the Gaullist regime with a form of social criticism that spoke to all sections of the Left. At the same time, he knew that the presidential election was the crucial one in the system of the Fifth Republic, and he recognized that only a non-Communist candidate could win this election by gathering all the votes of the Left in a second-round contest. He followed this strategy quite consistently before and after having taken his place at the head of the Socialist Party in 1971.

Mitterrand definitely wanted to modernize French society in quite a democratic way. But he had only vague ideas in economic matters. The broader goal was to find a third way between capitalism and collectivism, but on a very gradualist path, to be achieved over an indefinite period of time. He certainly didn’t anticipate the neoliberal counterrevolution that came once the Socialists were in power in the 1980s.

Read entire article at Jacobin