Letter from … Paris

Ideological divisions within the French Socialists are nothing new for a party whose refounding moment in 1971 saw it seek to make a clear break with capitalism. But, today, these divisions have taken on new gravity, for three main reasons.

The first is that, up until now, these divisions have been expressed above all when the party is in opposition, but when it has been in power they have not seriously endangered the government. But now, for the first time, ideological and political divisions have been strongly expressed while the party is in government. And they have caused a crisis which sees a significant minority of the party opposed to its own government and even threatening its existence in parliament.

Second, in the past, at its congresses, the party succeeded either in reconciling the different parts of the party, or, at least, in managing to forge political majorities without putting the unity of the party at risk. This is no longer the case. In fact, the party’s internal opposition rejects economic liberalism both in terms of ideology but also in terms of the policy of the government, which stands accused of drawing inspiration from such liberalism. The president of the republic, François Hollande, has chosen to adopt an economic policy which has seen the establishment of a partnership with business to improve the country’s economic competitiveness, something which has seriously weakened in recent years. This policy is rejected by large sections of the party, who see it as a ‘social liberal’ policy, one which for them is a politics of the right.

It must be borne in mind that at the end of the 1990s the French Socialist party rejected the third way politics of Tony Blair and New Labour in the name of ‘antiliberalism’. The internal opposition remains attached to Keynesianism and calls for demand-side policy and a kickstarting of consumption. It condemns the ‘responsibility pact’ agreed between those in power and the business community. This opposition is active inside the party but also in parliament, threatening the head of government, Manuel Valls, with not voting for pro-business measures which it considers ‘gifts for the bosses’. The president and his prime minister will, however, only be able to change course with great difficulty, not only because they believe that demand-side economics will not resolve the problems of the country but also because they are obliged, at least in part, to try to respect their commitments to Europe about reducing the public deficit. To retreat from this would signal the definitive defeat of Hollande. There is, therefore, no reconciliation in sight in terms of ideology but most of all it seems difficult to find agreement within parliament.

The situation is made considerably worse by the president’s poor standing in the eyes of the public. His popularity has collapsed and he is in no position to impose his authority on the party, while Valls, considered to belong to the right of the party, has trouble drawing the socialists to him. In such conditions it is by no means certain that the party will be able to maintain its unity.

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Gérard Grunberg is emeritus research professor at Sciences Po Paris

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Photo: parti socialiste

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