French socialists divided as right-wing threat looms
Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is kissed by her father, Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, at a party meeting on November 30, 2014. | Laurent Cipriani / AP

The French Socialist Party is consumed by factional warfare only months before the upcoming 2017 presidential election. Many current and former government ministers – including possibly the current prime minister Manuel Valls – are now slated to challenge sitting president François Hollande for the party’s nomination. As the extreme right-wing nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen soars ahead in public opinion polls and the center-right settles on former prime minister François Fillon as its pick, the Socialists are in disarray.

The deeply unpopular Hollande, garnering a satisfactory rating from only 4 percent of French citizens in one recent poll, is under pressure to step aside to allow another candidate to attempt a salvage of the party’s fortunes before voters cast their ballots in April. The next several weeks leading up to the Socialist primary in January promise to be tumultuous ones for the center-left, a situation that could further drive support for Le Pen and Fillon.

Socialist divisions

With the country still under a state of emergency following a string of terrorist attacks stretching back to last November, Hollande is facing criticism of his handling of not only security but the economy as well. The embattled French president is under attack from right, left, and center. His election in 2012 on a platform of taxing the wealthy and increasing social security benefits broke a 17-year run of right-wing domination of the executive.

Such pledges were seen as a reassertion of French social democracy’s left credentials at a time when socialists in Greece and other European locales were committed to austerity. Since declaring “the world of finance” to be his “worst enemy” in 2012, however, Hollande has taken a hard turn to the right.

France’s Supreme Constitutional Court declared his plan for a 75 percent surtax on the highest incomes to be unlawful late in 2012. The exposure of secret Swiss and Singaporean bank accounts held by a junior minister in his budget office at around the same time further damaged the administration in its earliest days.

In a bid to shore up support from moderates, another Hollande showpiece – a reform of speculative banking practices – was significantly watered down. Efforts to expel undocumented immigrants picked up pace and major financial subsidies were given to big capital in exchange for job creation promises. Such actions served, however, to further alienate the party’s left flank from Hollande.

The president’s embrace of a controversial labor law reform in early 2016 cemented left opposition. Aimed at “labor flexibility,” the proposal would raise the caps on overtime in France’s revered 35-hour workweek to as high as 60 hours. It would also reduce overtime pay for those extra hours. Workers who lose their job would no longer be able to seek compensation for unfair dismissals. And most controversially, it would allow corporations to negotiate agreements at the company level which go below established industry standards on pay, hours, and benefits.

Millions of trade unionists and other activists poured into the streets in massive demonstrations against Hollande and Valls’s reform proposal. But those opposing the rightward turn from within the Socialist Party have so far failed to unite behind a single alternative candidate to challenge the president for the nomination. Four candidates, including former ministers of Hollande’s cabinet, have put themselves forward.

Speculation is rife that even his own prime minister, Valls, may challenge Hollande. Though he continues to send signals of unity, Valls was quoted in the media as saying, “In the face of the disarray, the doubt, the disappointment, the idea that the left has no chance, I want to dispel the notion that defeat is inevitable.”

Polls suggest, however, that it may very well be.

The choices of the right

The Socialists’ in-fighting comes at precisely the moment when the extreme nationalist right is more united and optimistic than ever. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the Front national (FN), is riding high in the latest opinion polls, with some showing her in first place.

In the wake of the Brexit vote and Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election, Le Pen and the FN are hoping to pull off a shocker of their own. The FN is part of a wave of far-right nationalist movements on the ascent in Europe and North America.

Marine Le Pen became FN leader in 2011, succeeding the party’s founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier. He has been fined repeatedly for dismissing Nazi gas chambers as simply a “detail” of history. Though his daughter has tried to tone down the openly anti-Semitic and racist image that the party had, the FN still possesses the same core ideology. It is strongly nationalistic and opposes immigration. Le Pen has called for a “return to the time of borders,” reminiscent of Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border.

The FN has particularly sought to exploit public fear and unease over terrorist attacks by focusing on Muslim immigrants as both a security and economic threat. Le Pen says France should get out of the EU and the euro and give preference to natural-born French citizens over immigrants in the distribution of public benefits.

If current trends hold, the Socialists will be shut out of the run-off in April and Le Pen will face off against the center-right candidate François Fillon, who just secured the Republican nomination. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy had earlier been tipped to win but was eliminated during the primary.

Fillon, known as “Mr. Austerity,” is an open fan of late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and is competing with the FN for the support of right-wing voters. He promises a “radical shock” program of tax cuts, public spending reductions, major slashes to public sector employment, and an offensive against trade unions.

Winning the nomination with the backing of Catholic social conservatives in the Republican primary, Fillon leveraged his record of voting against a women’s equality law in 2014, his opposition to abortion, and his stance against the “dangerous social experimentation” of LGBTQ family equality.

He portrays himself as a defender of France’s Christian traditions and its history of national greatness. His denunciations of radical Islam and vague promises to put “controls” on Muslims in France are approaching the rhetoric of Le Pen.

To the left of social democracy

The left political forces outside the Socialist Party fold are in a similarly disorganized state. The Front de gauche (Left Front) coalition of parties that competed in the 2012 election has split in the intervening years after a series of local electoral setbacks.

Its 2012 candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has again declared himself a competitor, but under the banner of a new outfit, la France Insoumise. Mélenchon, a Trotskyist leader in a previous life, was a Socialist government minister in the 2000s and briefly led the Left Party following his departure from office.

Many on the left have wondered how the French Communist Party (PCF), which had provided the bulk of personnel and financing for the Front de gauche in 2012, would react to Mélenchon’s candidacy this year. There was speculation that the PCF might put forward its own ticket.

But on the weekend, the Communists ended that uncertainty with a vote by 53.6 percent of its members to offer their endorsement to Mélenchon. Though the PCF is far smaller than it was at the height of its power in the initial postwar decades, it remains the most organized and influential force on the French left. Its backing for Mélenchon keeps his candidacy alive and offers a left alternative to the sinking Socialists. It is not expected to impact the main dynamic of the presidential election though.

As Hollande and the rebels in the Socialist Party bicker over who will lead it to defeat and the radical left puts on a brave face, the real competition is between the two right-wing candidates – one a neoliberal and the other a neo-fascist.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.