The French Socialist Party took a whipping last Sunday, as the second round of the municipal elections gave a large win to the center right UMP party. The media, caught flatfooted as they predicted a standoff with some gains for the conservatives and significant ones for the extreme-right National Front, continue to miss the point, which is that the system of alternating center-right and center-left republicanism is not under threat, even if voters are disgusted with the inability of the Paris elites to deal with important issues.
However, notwithstanding that the French and British press are full of references to the “blue wave,” as conservative landslides have been termed in France since the First World War, the truth is that this is no signal of a conservative takeover of the world’s fourth, or is it fifth now, economy. The rascals were thrown out in towns and medium-sized towns, pop. 50,000-100,000; the other rascals stayed put in the world-class cities, Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux.
In fact, Paris stays red with a much heftier margin than anyone expected. Local politics is local, and in Paris, which elected its first-ever Socialist mayor in 2001, gave the nod to his chosen successor, who will be the city’s first-ever lady mayor, because far from governing like a brazen class warrior, he concentrated on municipal management and frills, such as turning quays on the river Seine into beaches during the summer months and putting a big-screen TV in front of city hall during the French Open tennis tournament. However, among the “big,” French cities (Lyon and Marseilles as well as Paris,) London compete, Gallic-population-wise, a fact Boris Johnson, the U.S.-born mayor of London and a tennis columnist for the Daily Telegraph, has been heard to mention when asked how to keep big metropolises business-friendly.
Still, notwithstanding the drubbing they took, reports of the death French Socialism party are not only exaggerated, they are old-story. The first time the “old house,” as Leon Blum called the Section française de l’internationale socialiste, was ransacked was when the Communists B & E’d at the legendary Tours Congress in 1920. They made off with a majority of the delegates, the press, most of the money. They had the wind in their sails and some pretty big names of the historic French Left. What followed was not happy.
Due to the courageous and even-tempered and humane positions of Blum and his comrades, their parliamentary and debating skills, and their hold on key electorates of the left, notably in working-class regions of the Flemish and Alsatian northeast and southwest as well as their appeal to persons in public service, teachers in particular, and intellectuals, the SFIO resisted the first of many “totalitarian temptations” that are part of the woof of 20th century French political history.
But in the ’30s, many intellectuals and artists were attracted to the romance shrewdly maintained by the Reds, and such stars as Romain Rolland, André Malraux, even André Gide, let themselves be swayed by the sirens of revolution. Blum, a Marxist who sincerely believed in the obligation to play by the rules of bourgeois democracy, refused to condone class warfare when he came to power with the victory of the Popular Front, a left-center left alliance put together to fight the 1936 elections but also to serve the interests of Soviet foreign policy. The perceived shortcomings of his brief experience of government (which actually laid much of the basis for the post-WWII welfare state) led to a another wave of defections, in both political directions: leading French Socialists joined or formed fascist movements, argued for pacifism in the face of the German menace, and began making use of anti-Semitism, while others went over to the Stalinist PCF, as did luminaries like Picasso and the Surrealist writer Louis Aragon.
The story continued with the defection of many Socialists to the regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain after France’s military defeat in 1940 and, soon, the imprisonment or murder of many others. After the war, the Socialists’ pro-NATO, pro-Europe programs made the party a stalwart of the Fourth Republic, but it foundered against the shoals of the Algerian crisis and took the regime down with it. Soon Malraux, who during the war had found his way to the “great man” theory of politics, could say, “Between us [followers of de Gaulle, who had stepped in when the Fourth Republic expired], and the Communists, there is nothing.”
He exaggerated. In the 1960s, an unlikely leader, François Mitterrand, who, following a Catholic and monarchist youth, had served Pétain prior to joining the Resistance and had never been in the SFIO, put together an anti-Gaullist coalition including the Communists and a redesigned, renamed Parti Socialiste based on the “caviar left” (what we would call limousine liberals) in alliance with social democratic reformers and Marxist radicals. A lengthy crossing of the desert led to triumph in 1980, two terms for Mitterrand in the presidency, and the consolidation of the PS as the major party of the left, with the Communists going into irreversible decline.
French politics since the Mitterrand years have been “normal” in the sense of being a competition for the center of the electorate, trusting market forces to power an engine strong enough to pull an increasingly heavy state sector (with its attendant entitlements). Asking people to work more than 35 hours per week or past the age of 50 can provoke political crises. As Boris Johnson knows, it is not that the will is not there, or not so many would be crossing the Channel. But if you take out one brick of the edifice of vested interests and privilege, you risk inviting a complete remodeling of the structure, and you can find enough people who do not want that to prevent it starting.
The inability of the right-of-center Nicolas Sarkozy to win a second term in 2013, and the nearly immediate plunge in popularity of his Socialist rival, François Hollande, suggests the political risks of this sort of game, but also to the difficulty of finding a way to sustain an expensive welfare state with an aging population.
The Socialists lost many of their historic bastions, including the city of Limoges, held since 1912 (the first one they won). Still; notwithstanding the gains of the xenophobic National Front in a few large towns, the voting reflects anxiety over serious issues of urban management — including crime — more than a return to ideological politics. Paris is a case in point: the PS held on to the city behind its candidate, Anne Hidalgo, despite a sociologically and economically conservative majority. Many wards stayed on the right, including the one where our correspondent Joe Harriss lives and even the two that make up the Latin Quarter, the heart of the historic “left bank,” which, notwithstanding the oratory heard in its cafes, knows where the butter is spread.
President Hollande may have got the message, if his choice of the man from Barcelona, Manuel Valls, who emigrated to France as a youth and, unlike almost all the leading politicians left or right, is not an alumnus of the top Paris schools, to replace Jean-Marc Ayrault in the premiership means anything other than a reprimand to a convenient scapegoat. Valls, Interior Minister in the Ayrault government, is considered a hard-liner on law and order and immigration, which here means defending the Jacobin tradition of egalitarian assimilation (“republican integration”) against the creeping “communitarianism” of France’s growing immigrant population, befuddling the “caviar left” with its muddled notions of identity rights.
If Valls has any degree of success, he may be able to halt, even reverse, the drift of French society into a dangerous morass of stagnation and anxiety that lately has given their chance to xenophobes and anti-Semites with demagogic slogans that target “Europe” and the United States as France’s enemies. Positioning himself as a French Tony Blair from Catalonia, complete with the suggestion the Socialist Party change its name, he could challenge Hollande for the presidential nomination in 2017 — or simply win it by acclamation.