The collapse of France’s Socialist Party amidst the Macron surge

With Macron dominant and the left divided, the future of a devastated Socialist Party is extremely unclear

The Presidential and legislative elections in France this year delivered arguably the most dramatic upheaval in the French party system since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Unprecedentedly, the sitting President did not to attempt to run for re-election, whilst the traditional bipolarity of the French party system shattered under the weight of Emmanuel Macron’s insurgent new centrist movement and populist candidates from both far-left and far-right. Candidates from neither of France’s two traditional major parties reached the presidential run-off. The Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate, Benoît Hamon, came fifth with an ignominious 6.3% of the vote. In the June legislative elections, that followed May’s presidential election, a decimated PS lost 250 seats. These results, the worst in the history of French socialism, have pushed the PS to the brink of collapse. So, what does the PS’s electoral collapse mean for the party and the French left? And what does the future hold for Emmanuel Macron’s new administration?

In a previous SPERI blog, we have commented upon the ‘unravelling’ of President Hollande’s anti-austerity programme. A SPERI paper told of how Hollande failed to both bring about reform at the European level, including a renegotiation of the new Fiscal Compact, and to deliver a challenging macroeconomic programme. On December 1st 2016, after years of deep unpopularity, Hollande declined to re-stand for election, leading to open warfare between the party’s left and right wings in a battle for the party’s future. In January, the party’s presidential primary was eventually won by leftist candidate Hamon. Following Hamon’s victory, a number of those on the party’s right, including former Prime Minister Valls, fled what they saw as a sinking ship and joined Macron’s new centrist movement, La République En Marche! (LRM).

Following Hamon’s dismal Presidential showing, numerous Socialist figures declared the party ‘dead’. Shortly after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the presidential election, the party abandoned the vast majority of Hamon’s manifesto, including his flagship universal basic income policy, and set out a much more ‘Macron-compatible’ legislative programme. This strategy failed to reverse the party’s fortunes, however, with the PS returning just 30 deputies to the Assemblée nationale. Hamon was himself amongst the casualties, as was Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the party’s First Secretary who had held his seat in Paris for 20 years, and a number of high profile ministers from the Hollande administration.

The PS has lost big before, reduced to 53 parliamentary seats in 1993. However this time, not only is the scale of this parliamentary defeat bigger, but the party’s devastation in the presidential vote is unprecedented. The political landscape around the PS has changed fundamentally. For the first time since 1962, the PS is neither the government nor the main opposition party – no longer a true parti d’alternance. Its ability to rebuild will be constrained by its gravely weakened parliamentary voice, France’s two-round majoritarian electoral system which punishes parties outside the dominant two, and the loss of around €15 million of the PS’s state funding, which is calculated on vote share and seats held in the Assemblée (the PS’s headquarters on Rue de Solférino could be sold as a result).

One striking consequence of the legislative elections is the shrinkage of the French left as a whole, which now holds just 72 of parliamentary 577 seats. It remains, as ever, deeply divided between three parliamentary groups: the PS, Mélenchon’s La France insoumise, and the Communists. In the absence of forceful opposition, Macron’s hand is strengthened. Furthermore, France’s new President faces a political economic environment his predecessor could only have dreamt of. After five long years of tough conditions in the Eurozone, economic growth is returning to France and unemployment is falling. In addition, it appears that Macron will benefit from improved relations with Germany. Though he is largely pushing the same proposals for Europe as Hollande, such as a Eurozone finance minister and a shared budget, in the context of Brexit and the threat of a Le Pen victory, Macron’s win on a pro-EU platform has given EU leaders a sense of optimism tinged with a recognition that change is needed.

The next five years will not be plain sailing for Macron, however. Programmatically, his first governing efforts face the familiar challenge of enacting fiscal retrenchment to meet the 3% deficit target whilst seeking to honour his campaign commitments, including property and wealth tax reduction pledges. Public sector efficiency saving are the mooted means to square that circle – but we’ve heard that before. Flagship plans to reform and flexibilise French labour law, to be fast-tracked through the legislative process by ‘ordinance’ rather than normal parliamentary bills this summer, remain controversial and unpopular with social partners, unions and what’s left of the parliamentary opposition. Presentationally, within weeks of coming to power, Macron has already tasted political controversy with the resignation of several government ministers. Most symbolically, after seeking to implement reforms to ‘re-moralise’ public and political life, Macron’s coalition partner at the head of MoDem, François Bayrou, was forced to step down from his ministerial post after accusations surfaced suggesting that MoDem had misused European Parliament funds for party business. Furthermore, despite its dominance over parliament for the next five years, the future of LRM is far from certain. It must be remembered that, despite its current dominance in parliament, in the context of record abstention levels, LRM obtained a historic low for a new majority, with just 32.3% of the vote (7.3m votes) in the first-round of the legislative elections. In comparison, Les Républicains lost the 2012 legislative elections to the PS while claiming 34.6% of the first-round vote (9m votes).

Macron’s movement has changed the political landscape, but it doesn’t yet have deep roots in French political life. Its position remains vulnerable in the face of resurgent competition from both its left and right. The stakes are also incredibly high. There is a sense amongst insiders that this is the last chance for the forces of moderation in France to deliver meaningful reform. Should Macron’s presidency fail to live up to expectations, it will only boost the chances of a far-right victory in 2022. An electoral challenge from the Left looks less likely.  Mélenchon has a soap box in the form of his own parliamentary group, whilst the limits of French Communist ambition mean they are buoyant after winning 10 seats, but the French left’s fissiparous tendencies suggest internal struggle and division, rather than cohesion and revival are the more likely outcome. Hamon has now also quit the PS and formed his own political movement ‘beyond party politics’, yet it looks unlikely to transform the landscape. Whilst a rump of the PS may well limp through the next five years, the party’s position within any new configuration of the French left remains extremely unclear.