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French Socialist Party eyes renewal as European centre-left collapses
French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has quit the Socialist Party after 44 years's membership. He had effectively made his decision when he joined President Emmanuel Macron’s government, a symptom of the crisis that hit the former ruling party after its traumatic defeat in last year's elections - a crisis that has also hit other European social-democratic movements.
The French Socialist Party (PS) is currently choosing what direction to take, with elections next week for a new national secretary, who will lead the party after its heavy electoral losses last year.
The PS finished last amongst the major parties in parliamentary elections, with 7.4 per cent of the vote, losing 250 of its 280 MPs.
On Thursday evening the four candidates for national secretary took part in a televised debate.
The main question for them and their party, according to analyst Philippe Marlière, is what attitude they should have to Macron's government.
“The big issue is what kind of opposition to Macron, if there is to be any opposition at all,” Marlière, a professor of French and European politics at University College London, told RFI. “Because for some candidates, it’s not clear whether there should be an opposition to [Macron’s] policies.”
The candidates include former agriculture minister and government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll, who is perhaps the most likely to be willing to work with Macron.
Leftist MEP Emmanuel Maurel, is pushing for a closer alliance with Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his hard-left France Unbowed movement, which gained ground in the last election.
Then there are two candidates who are firmly in the middle of the road: Olivier Faure, who heads the Socialist group in parliament, and MP Luc Carvounas, who talked of unity during the debate:
“I want the leaders of the left to stand up and come together,” he said, calling for a “rainbow of the left” made up of all those who share the same vision of society. “If the Socialist Party doesn’t unify, who will?”
Longer inteview with Philippe Marliere:
What's left of the Socialists?
The direction of the party will be decided by a vote of party members next week.
The PS estimates about 30,000 members have remained, despite massive defections to Macron’s Republic on the Move party and to France Unbowed.
“There’s still a historical connection when it comes to the brand, the party name, though it’s been tarnished,” says Marlière, to explain their continued loyalty.
There are also a certain number of voters on the left who find Mélenchon and France Unbowed too radical.
Plus there are still Socialist strongholds in French local government.
“The party faithful, in my mind, are people who have connections, locally, with what’s left of the last Socialist bastions - and there are still some, to be fair," Marlière comments. "That’s where you’ll find the members now. People who have a connection with, if not personal vested interest in, making sure the party doesn’t disappear altogether.”
European decline of the centre-left
The French Socialists are not the only social democrats in trouble.
Centre-left parties all over Europe have seen massive defections in recent years.
This week in Italy the ruling Democratic Party came in third place in parliamentary elections, with 23 percent of the vote, behind the right wing and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
And Germany’s Social Democrats saw their lowest score since 1949 in elections in September. The party has lost more than half of its voters in the last 15 years and is currently working on a deal to enter a coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservatives.
Marlière says centre-left parties have failed to retain supporters because they did not deliver on their promises: “What made social democracy attractive is that it offered a compromise between market capitalism and some kind of social reforms and regulation of it. And the story of social democracy of the last 30 years is that it has increasingly espoused market capitalism and neoliberalism and has been less and less effective in delivering policies that protect people.”
Centre-left parties must now redefine themselves, if they can. And it might take a while to find out if they still have a role to play in modern politics.