The Fall of the French Left

With Benoît Hamon’s defeat, his Socialist Party may be obsolete.

Benoit Hamon, Socialist Party presidential candidate for the 2017 presidential election, makes selfie with supporters after delivering a speech as he campaigns in Carmaux, France, April 21, 2017. (Regis Duvignau)

In the first round of a French presidential election, there will, naturally, always be more losers than winners. But until Sunday, the Socialist Party had lost in the initial round only once before: In 2002, when incumbent Prime Minister Lionel Jospin unexpectedly finished a close third, behind a surprise surge from the National Front’s leader (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen.*

This year, independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN herself, will move on to the final round on May 7. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished an unprecedented fifth. His loss feels very different from Jospin’s of 15 years ago, and not only because his paltry share of the vote was so much lower—just over 6 percent compared to Jospin’s 16.

What is even more striking than the result itself is that, unlike in 2002, this crushing loss comes as no surprise at all. Like Le Pen’s victory, it was in the making for months, if not years. And yet it is still so remarkable: The most open presidential race France has seen since the formation of the Fifth Republic, with four candidates in close contention, saw no place for the Socialist Party, a stalwart of the French political scene for the past half century. The election was full of surprises, scandals, twists, and turns. But for numerous reasons the Socialists were never really in the mix. The media covered Hamon, it seemed, almost out of sympathy, a melancholic nod to the party’s former status.

Hamon won the Socialist Party’s leadership election in January, and was widely recognized as the party’s most-radical nominee ever. His left-wing credentials were clear: After being appointed education minister in April 2014, he quit the government in August that year in protest against its pro-market policies. But his promises to bring about a future désirable, with a universal basic income, a tax on robots, and legalized cannabis, would never be enough to lift the sorry state of his party. The rot ran too deep.

Indeed, if this election revealed the rifts and ruptures within French society, it also revealed the rifts and ruptures within the Socialist Party itself, and across the French left more generally. President Francois Hollande endured the lowest popularity ratings on record and his difference-splitting agenda—anti-austerity rhetoric with austerity-driven policy and occasional appeasements to the FN’s xenophobia—satisfied no one. He leaves behind the strange air of having let down everyone, all but burying the Socialist Party in the process. His attempts to maintain unity have, instead, ripped the party apart.

While Hamon’s leadership victory was initially met by suggestions of support from the party’s elites, these swiftly gave way to betrayal. Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, was one of the most notable departures, along with Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Hamon, Valls explained, “does not arouse my enthusiasm.” It’s hard to blame them. The Socialists’ pro-business wing already had its dream candidate, only he wasn’t running for their party. Macron, a former investment banker at Rothschild who left the party last year to launch his own movement, En Marche!, attracted a large share of the Socialist Party vote—supporters and staff alike—with his pro-Europe, pro-business agenda; his vote was highest in areas that voted for Hollande in 2012, predominantly in the western regions. On the left, meanwhile, Hamon was outflanked by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, another former member of the Party backed by his own movement, La France Insoumise. His captivating campaign did the most damage to Hamon, almost single-handedly halving his vote-share within the space of a month.

It’s tempting to ask what might have happened had Mélenchon and Hamon merged their candidacies—could one of them have bested Macron or Le Pen, commentators on the left wonder? But such a plan could have could have just as easily backfired and come to nothing; such is the Socialist Party’s blemished brand that it could have hurt Mélenchon by trying to help him. He was, after all, advocating dégagisme, or “kick them out,” where “them” refers to the traditional politicians and elites. This rebellious message, which resonated so well with French frustrations over politics-as-usual, may have fallen flat had he bound himself to a “them” party like the Socialists. As Mélenchon put it himself, he had “no intention of going and hitching myself to a hearse.”

In the wake of Mélenchon’s surprising (if also unsuccessful) surge and Macron’s hold on the center, the Socialists are left to awkwardly ask whether they have a purpose. This question has no easy answers. With no territory to call their own, they are not even in “no-man’s land”—theirs is a nowhere land. It’s not clear what the way forward is, or if one even exists. While for now the Socialists retain a majority of seats in Parliament, with elections for the legislative assemblies in June, The Economist has already reported that, according to the En Marche! team, many Socialists are ready to defect. The two factions that have hitherto lain uneasily within the party—centrism and socialism—have now deserted it for Mélenchon and Macron. Meanwhile, whatever remains of the working class has largely shifted its support to Le Pen, who preys on its insecurity by invoking foreign threats. Living in areas with low economic activity and with low levels of education were the two strongest demographic indicators for voting Le Pen.

What is clear is that the Socialist Party cannot continue as if nothing has changed. It is no longer the workers’ party, and has not been for some time—François Mitterrand’s embrace of the Single European Act in the mid-1980s marked the end of the left’s opposition to the market, but no vision ever replaced it. The left’s mainstream parties across the Western world have failed to confront this same identity crisis. They now draw their core support from an urban, affluent middle class. Hamon’s campaign promises, radical though they were, reflected this narrowness: clever, cool ideas, but too intellectual to resonate with the millions of men and women struggling to make a living right now.

Tellingly, Macron, Le Pen, and Mélenchon found success by adopting new vocabularies—they each desperately wanted to distance themselves from the status quo, and, in the process, ditched the tired dichotomy of the left and the right. In western democracies, the center has made this move before, with Tony Blair’s “Third Way” and Bill Clinton’s “triangulation,” but Mélenchon’s decision to do something similar, while not yielding on his left-wing agenda, was striking and effective. For decades, he has been a staunch maverick of the French left. When he decided to leave the Socialist Party in 2008 after 30 years of service, it was, he said, to set up a “new party for the left.” Now, he and those around him almost refuse to use the word. “We do not appeal to the identitarian patriotism of those who think that we have to ‘save the left’ or ‘be left-wing,’” a spokesperson for Mélenchon’s La France insoumise explained in an interview. “It is far too minoritarian. We want to win.”

And they came closer than many thought possible. Hamon, by contrast, languished in fifth with dated language. “The left,” he gushed, “it’s everything I am. It is my life.” No one else, he said, could represent the country’s political left. But it turns out no one wanted to, because no one needed to. It’s not where the votes are found.

Throughout his campaign, Mélenchon always insisted that the French are furious, not fascist. In the final round, Macron against Le Pen, France will see how far that is true. But we can say with certainty that nor are the French loyally “left-wing” either. If the Socialist Party is to survive, it will need a new beat.

* This article originally misstated that Lionel Jospin was the president of France in 2002; he was prime minister. We regret the error.