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.