The French presidential election is still two months away and the likeliest winner, according to opinion polls, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron has yet to declare his candidacy. Yet one outcome already seems certain: the vote will be another, possibly terminal, disaster for the once-dominant Socialist Party and, more broadly, for the French left.
Important lessons can be learned from this imminent failure by other European progressive social democratic parties as well as by Labor in Britain. The re-election in Portugal last week of António Costa’s Socialists, who improved on their 2019 performance, demonstrated that it is still possible for the centre-left to win, to govern and to win again.
A basic lesson concerns the willingness to rally loyally around a single standard-bearer, avoiding the factionalism so typical of the left in Europe (and the United States). In France, voters face no less than seven left-wing candidates for the Élysée, including socialist Anne Hidalgo, Greens leader Yannick Jadot, far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and communist Fabien Roussel.
Fears of an impending train crash have intensified after an attempt to agree a ‘unit candidate’ backfired spectacularly. A former minister, Christiane Taubira, won an informal vote, which was boycotted by the main contenders, rendering it meaningless. Of the magnificent seven, only Mélenchon is in double figures in the polls (10%). Hidalgo, heir to former Socialist President Francois Hollande, who only left office in 2017, is on a laughable 3%.
Another key lesson for the left is the need to adapt to changing political formations. In Germany, the Social Democrats ended decades of centre-right government last year by forming an unlikely coalition with the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats. In Norway, the Labor Party regained power in September by joining forces with the Agrarian Center Party.
To win, the left (in the broad sense) must also adapt to the evolution of the electorates. It is far from clear in many countries that a homogeneous working class vote still exists. The end of the communist era, the impact on communities and jobs of deindustrialisation, globalization and post-2008 austerity, and fears fueled by far-right populists about the immigration and identity have changed voting habits.
France has its own equivalents of England’s red wall seats – decaying urban areas where well-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared and investment has dried up. But instead of switching to a conservative-type party, voters are increasingly supporting Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour, the sirens of reaction and far-right division. This is what can happen when the left fails in its responsibility to propose plausible and winning alternatives.
Spain offers perhaps the best European example of how socialism in the 21st century can thrive. The Socialist Workers’ Party of Pedro Sánchez took office in 2018, in coalition with the populist Podemos and other factions. From the start, Sánchez rejected austerity and prioritized the fight against poverty and inequality.
Everything did not go perfectly, far from it. But Sánchez’s supporters say that by increasing public funding for health and education, raising the minimum wage by 29%, helping small businesses and insisting that all government policies take into account the goals of environmental and climate crisis, he managed to reconnect with disgruntled voters – the former “working class” – and create a progressive majority for change.
It seems to work. Recent newspaper poll El País suggests that the Socialists would triumph again if elections were held today, but with some losses on the right and the far right. Spain offers no panacea for the disease of the left. But it points to a way forward for those in Britain, France and elsewhere wondering if they will win again.