France’s left is in a sorry state. It took a bashing in local elections in March and then European elections in May. The ruling socialists have plunged to an all time low of less than 14%. The radical Front de Gauche, comprising the communists and other leftists like Jean Luc Melenchon, polled just 6.3%, down from the 11% for Jean Luc Melenchon in the Presidential elections in 2012, and no higher than its national elections results the same year. And meanwhile the nasty Marine le Pen and her far right Front National stole the no.1 spot vote with an historic 25% score.
Now the Front de Gauche and a growing group of dissident socialists want to turn the tide back in favour of left policies and are starting to talk seriously about binding together. Joining this left ‘coalition of the willing’ are the greens, former socialist coalition partners who quit the government after the recent reshuffle that saw the right-wing and eco-unfriendly Manuel Valls become PM.
The fear among socialists is of a total collapse of the socialist vote on par with the demise of Greece’s one great social democratic party Pasok that died on the altar of neo-liberal austerity. This was highlighted in a recent poll by OpinionWay for Le Figaro newspaper that showed that only 3% of French people wanted to see Hollande stand again in 2017.
The causes are not difficult to identify. A government that pledged to turn its back on the right-wing pro-business Nicolas Sarkozy Presidency and the Europe of austerity imposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s is instead slashing business taxes by tens of billions, cutting public spending by the same amount, to meet economically suicidal EU deficit goals, appease the financial markets it had promised to tame and cut the size of the French state (by 2017, public spending is set to account for 53.5% of GDP, down from 57.1% in 2013). The results are 5.9 million unemployed, 10 million people living on less than €900 per month, flatlining growth and a record debt of 91.8% of GDP.
Rebellion has been growing in the socialist ranks. In April, forty socialist lawmakers obstained from backing government plans for heavy budget cuts in coming years. This weekend one of the rebel socialist groups who call themselves the “afflicted socialists” led by former MEP Liem Hoang Ngoc and university professor and Guardian columnist Philippe Marliere took what was up to now an internal socialist party debate into the wider political arena – and threw down the gauntlet to all those who sought a left turn in France’s government to unite.
“The left is in danger,” said Marliere. “The collapse of the Socialist Party in the last election has not benefited other left parties but sparked a massive abstention and a strong rise of the extreme right.” Marliere said the Government had “utterly failed’ to tackle “structural issues such as employment, purchasing power, taxation, education … in short, the left in power is purusing a right wing policy.”
Among socialists who responded to the call from the “Afflicted Socialists” for a possible “red-rose-green” alliance was thirty-something Sylvain Mathieu, who stood on a united left ticket in the last election for the first secretary of the Socialists on April 15. Despite being a low profile figure in the party, he garnered a third of the vote in National Council, against the victor, Jean Christopher Cambadélis, a former close aid to Dominque Strauss Khan of 61 years.
“Everyone is confused or desperate,” Mathieu said. “Over the past year [internal] democracy in the socialist party has been a travesty, so has our policy on Europe “Worse,” he said, referring a President Hollande’s increasingly distant and arrogant style, “Every day is full of [policy] surprises.” The right-turn in Paris left Mathieu and others wondering if the socialists had completely lost their political compass. “Does the left-right divide still means something? We must respond, [the government] may not last another three years like this, it’s not possible.”
Another disillusioned socialist to heed Marliere and Liem Hoang Ngoc’s call was Caroline Haas, a feminist activist (former head of Oser le Feminism) who quit the socialist party earlier this year and stood on a feminist list (Féministes pour une Europe solidaire) for the European elections. She accuses the President and his government of “doing away with the fundamentals of the left” in coming up with their own brand of Margaret Thatcher’s “TINA” (There Is No Alternative). For Caroline de Haas there is no other solution than for Left leaders who are against this policy to start organising to “gain power”.
Pascal Durand, former national secretary of the greens (EEV) urged everyone to “go beyond the old references the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” that founded France’s existing parties.
Pierre Laurent, national secretary of the Communist Party said: “In France, there are forces prepared to rebuild an alternative left majority and the Front de Gauche is aware that it needs to change to take a leading role in this.” A task that must be carried out with all willing political partners “without any preconditions.”
But the question of “how” remains an open one.
In breaking with the government, disgruntled socialists have no intention of throwing the Socialist Party, its activists or voters out with the bathwater. As a first objective they are planning a conference in October with the goal of retaking control of the parliamentary majority, and to put PM Manuel Valls “in the minority”, as Gérard Filoche, a socialist on the left wing of the party put it.
He has advocated “a battle of amendments” to the National Assembly for a ‘supplementary’ budget more friendly to lower income groups to be passed by the Cabinet later this week. If this option fails, that leaves the “SYRIZA scenario”, that is, emulating the Greek radical left coalition that emerged as the largest party in the European elections.
This is the goal of Philippe Marliere (a frequent CounterPunch writer), who wants a new force that would “go beyond the Front de Gauche and the Socialist Party.” And presumably this new red-rose-green alliance could include Nouvelle Donne (New Deal), a new party of mostly former socialists including figures like Stéphane Hessel, the writer and inspiration behind the Indignados and Occupy movements. The six-month-old party stood in the European elections and gained 500,000 votes (2.9%).
Eva Joly, the Norwegian-born French magistrate who stood as Presidential candidate for the greens in 2012, cut to the chase, and proposed plans should immediately be laid for a primary election for a “single socialist candidate” representing the forces to the left of Hollande.
And around what common platform? “The fight against austerity, the establishment of a Sixth Republic, the defence of public services, the fight against transatlantic trade treaty, establish a policies for nationalization or state participation in the capital of large industrial enterprises,” said the afflicted Liem Hoang-Ngoc, who was optimistic that a genuinely progressive and politically powerful coalition could be forged. “When we want to unite, we can do it.”
Tom Gill blogs at www.revolting-europe.com