In France, Will Change Be Now or Never? Can the Socialists Achieve Real Change in France?

By Bowd, Gavin | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

In France, Will Change Be Now or Never? Can the Socialists Achieve Real Change in France?


Bowd, Gavin, Soundings


In May 1981 Francois Mitterrand became the first Socialist President of the French Fifth Republic. His two electoral slogans - 'Change Life' (inspired by vagabond poet Arthur Rimbaud) and 'Calm Strength' - managed to inspire hopes of radical change while allaying fears of Soviet tanks being parked beneath the Eiffel Tower. His triumph was followed a month later by a 'pink wave' that gave a thumping parliamentary majority to the Socialists. There then followed a modernising government that included ministers from a Communist Party that was already in sharp decline. But within three years, in the face of deep recession, the government had turned to monetarist 'rigour' and 'restructuring', while the Communists had returned to their shrinking ghetto.

In May 2012, Francois Hollande, one of Mitterrand's political children, managed at last to put a Socialist back in the Elysee Palace. His campaign slogan - 'Change is now' - appealed to those who had been sickened by Sarkozy's bling-bling style: according to satirical magazine Le Canard enchaine, Sarkozy had tried to 'redecorate the Elysee palace in the colours of a Saint-Tropez discotheque'. And there were also Sarkozy's broken promises on spending power and jobs, and his inability to deal with the deepest recession since the war. Hollande presented himself as 'Monsieur Normal', seeming to break with both the vulgar excesses of the outgoing 'omnipresident' and the priapic outrages of the previous favourite for the Socialist candidacy, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Following the logic of the institutions of the French Republic, the dynamic in the subsequent parliamentary elections was towards the party of the elected President. The voters were both seduced and reassured by a government that pressed progressive buttons - a rise in the minimum wage, a return to retirement at sixty for certain categories, rent controls, requisition of empty properties for the homeless, a temporary super-tax of 75 per cent on the richest, a growth pact for the eurozone, tougher laws on sexual harassment, proposed legalisation of same-sex marriage - while avoiding the radical adventurism that might drag France further into the financial maelstrom. Hollande's party, of which he had been national secretary for many years, enjoyed a victory beyond its expectations: a clear majority for the Socialists and their allies. The greens would be included in the new coalition government, but there was no need to compromise with the Communist-dominated Left Front, which had been reduced to a mere ten seats from its previous total of nineteen.

At least in terms of electoral representation, France has never been so left-wing. The left has won the Presidency, the National Assembly and the Senate. Across the country it controls twenty-one out of twenty-two regions and six in ten departments. And yet the question inevitably arises of what change is truly possible now? What can all-conquering French social democracy meaningfully do in a European Union dominated by the right and in the grips of an international financial crisis? Does the new government in Paris offer an alternative to neoliberalism and austerity, or will it merely give a progressive patina to the European austerity measures being defended by Germany? The coming years will, in more ways than one, show what is left of the French Left.

Despite echoes of the early heady days of 1981, the picture for Socialist France is much more gloomy today. Whereas Mitterrand's Socialist-Communist coalition in its first years embarked on an exciting and markedly left-wing programme of reforms - including nationalisations, hikes in the minimum wage and benefits, new rights in the workplace, a reduction of the working week, the abolition of the death penalty and a rejuvenated Ministry of Culture - the present coalition moved to embrace 'rugged reality' after only three weeks. To the protests of the unions the minimum wage was increased by only 0. …

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