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Four decades after Mitterrand’s victory, France’s left is in trouble

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May 13th 2021PARISListen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.FORTY YEARS ago on May 10th, François Mitterrand made history, becoming France’s first Socialist president since before the second world war. At next year’s presidential election, the party the wily leader carried triumphantly to power in 1981 could make history again, but for rather a different reason. The Socialist Party runs the risk of failing to make it to the final run-off vote twice in a row.A year ahead of any election, polls need to be treated with caution. French history is littered with early favourites—Alain Juppé, Dominique Strauss-Kahn—who never made it to the Elysée. A year before the presidential vote in 2017, the name Emmanuel Macron had not been

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FORTY YEARS ago on May 10th, François Mitterrand made history, becoming France’s first Socialist president since before the second world war. At next year’s presidential election, the party the wily leader carried triumphantly to power in 1981 could make history again, but for rather a different reason. The Socialist Party runs the risk of failing to make it to the final run-off vote twice in a row.

A year ahead of any election, polls need to be treated with caution. French history is littered with early favourites—Alain Juppé, Dominique Strauss-Kahn—who never made it to the Elysée. A year before the presidential vote in 2017, the name Emmanuel Macron had not been tested in a single poll. An average of polls this year, which assume that Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, will be the Socialists’ candidate, suggests that the party would get just 8% in the first round. This would not be enough to get her through to the run-off. Worse, were she in fact to make it through and face Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (RN), polls say Ms Le Pen would win.

Four years after Mr Macron upended French politics, the country’s formerly dominant forces—on both the left and the right—have never looked so weak or unstable. The left remains divided. The greens (Europe Écologie Les Verts) captured some big cities at municipal elections last year. But nationally they struggle, and disagree among themselves. Polls say that Yannick Jadot, who is widely predicted to be the greens’ presidential candidate, would also lose to Ms Le Pen in a run-off. Last month he organised a meeting in Paris with other parties of the left to try to chart a way to a common candidate. The effort failed, not least because Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing Unsubmissive France, was absent, defying lockdown with a jaunt to Latin America to check on Bolivian socialism.

Matters look little better on the right. The Republicans are again bleeding talent. Mr Macron poached many of their moderates to serve in his government, including two prime ministers (Edouard Philippe and now Jean Castex) and a finance minister, Bruno Le Maire. Last week, amid high local drama, Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and a former minister, quit the Republicans too. Ahead of regional elections next month, he was furious that the party had refused an electoral deal with Mr Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) in the Provence region, in order to thwart Ms Le Pen’s candidate there.

As it is, neither of the two strongest candidates for the presidency on the right is even a card-carrying member of the Republicans any more. Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, and Valérie Pécresse, head of the Paris region, have both quit the party. At the heart of the Republicans’ bitter internal row is how, and whether, to fight the far right. When he walked out, Mr Estrosi declared that a right-wing faction with an ambiguous attitude to the RN had “taken the party hostage”. The Republicans, he said, needed to state publicly that their priority is to keep the RN out of power, at all times.

What to make of this volatility? First, parties in France, which lack the tribal loyalty once enjoyed by those in Britain, say, or Germany, are no longer a determining factor in electoral politics. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s former Brexit negotiator, may be hoping to stage a bid for the presidency from within the Republicans. But, “over the past five years,” says Emmanuel Rivière, of Kantar, a polling group, “the party that most of the French feel the closest to is ‘no party’.” Mr Macron exploited the tools offered by the Fifth Republic’s constitution, including the two-round election, to run for president without one. Mr Bertrand, who has declared his candidacy, is trying to do the same in 2022. If a candidate emerges who consistently polls better than Mr Macron against Ms Le Pen, this—rather than party backing—could be the basis of a serious presidential bid.

Second, there has been a “droitisation”, or shift to the right, among the French electorate. Since 2017, the share of voters describing themselves as being on the right has risen by five points, to 38%, according to the Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique, a think-tank; that on the left has dropped by a point, to 24%. This too has blurred traditional voting patterns. In his time, Mitterrand could count on the votes of the Communist Party, then deeply rooted in industrial and mining areas, to help him win in the run-off. Today, the main beneficiary of the working-class vote is Ms Le Pen’s RN. Fully 48% of blue-collar workers told a poll they would back her next year in the first round; just 2% would vote for Ms Hidalgo and 4% for Mr Jadot.

Third, this shift has been accompanied by a growing convergence of views on cultural values between Republican and RN supporters. According to a study by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, a think-tank, there is now almost no gap between the two electorates on security, law and order, and attitudes to Islam. When a group of (mostly) retired military officers, many linked to the far right, signed a petition last month in favour of the army stepping in to restore order, an astonishing 71% of Republican voters approved. This convergence is exactly what Ms Le Pen hopes to exploit, and use to split the Republican party.

The collapse of traditional parties, which he himself engineered, could help Mr Macron. Polls suggest that in 2022 he is again likely to face Ms Le Pen in a run-off. Yet where the candidate in 2017 embodied a balance of left- and right-leaning views, the president has in office followed the electorate’s rightwards shift, appointing not only two prime ministers from the centre-right but Gérald Darmanin, his hard-line interior minister.

This carries a risk: that disillusioned voters on the left refuse to back Mr Macron in the second round, even against Ms Le Pen. For exactly this reason, polls currently give Mr Macron a far slimmer victory over her than he managed in 2017. “He’s really got to reach out to the left,” says one LREM deputy. For all the other parties’ disarray, Mr Macron remains on uncertain ground. And, as France remembers Mitterrand’s first election, one feature in particular will doubtless be in Ms Le Pen’s mind. She is on her third election campaign—just as Mitterrand was when he triumphed in 1981.

A version of this article was published online on May 9th, 2021

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "A revolution and a rematch"

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