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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Pourquoi la gauche est-elle en échec ?

by Lucien Degoy

Why Has the French Left Failed So Singularly?

Translated Monday 21 May 2007, by Isabelle Métral

The facts are dire enough: the disastrous showings in the first round (an all-time low), then the socialist candidate’s defeat in the second. Has the left simply lost a battle or has it lost an ideological campaign? Stéphane Rozès (head of the CSA polling institute) and sociologists Laurent Willermz and Michel Vakaloulis debate with L’Humanité on the reasons for the left’s defeat and on its future propects.

Not only has the left been unable to put up or push through a convincing platform for deep social change and to raise hopes of a profound renewal of political ethics but it has failed to prevent a dangerous man (so do people on the left view Nicolas Sarkozy) from coming into office and jeopardising the future of the country.

The diagnosis is under discussion: L’Humanité’s guests clearly hold diverging views, but all three more or less agree that for many years the left has been divided and hampered by ideological confusion.That is obviously true as concerns the socialist party, with its schizophrenic division between its authentic leftist positions and its open leanings to the centre-right, even though it accentuates its concessions to "the market". As to “la gauche de la gauche” (the radical left), the split between the different component forces has been aggravated by their devastatingly poor showings in the first round, notably that of the communist party.

What with its old divisions and the new or modernist ones, the left is now facing a wall. Leaders on all sides call for an overhaul of its foundations. But what philosophy must inspire it? How is change to be defined? How high must economic and social reforms be set? In short, where can we find guidelines to build a new left on firm ground, and give it confidence in its basic values? (Emmanuelle Cath)

L’HUMANITÉ: What factors do you think have most decisively contributed to Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory?

ROZÈS: First his commitment to do things. Like Bayrou and Ségolène Royal, that’s why Sarkozy wanted the post. To French people, the politicians they elected had ended up over the years merely enjoying their privileges once they were elected and exonerating themselves of their responsibility on the plea that they were powerless owing to external constraints: Brussels, the financial markets, globalisation, complexity and so on.

Secondly, Sarkozy succeeded in effecting an ideological synthesis that pulled the two main rightwing traditions together, namely the neo-liberal right (from Giscard d’Estaing to Balladur), and Chirac and Villepin’s social-minded, Gaullist right. When he speaks highly of work and the pride attached to it, he speaks both to the country’s entrepreneurs and to its blue-collar workers. He accepts the market economy, but reassures and rallies everyone with his talk about the nation. To entrepreneurs he promises to set the country working; to the lower- and middle- middle class he says: I’ll set the country moving and you’ll be the driving force at the heart of it; to the working class he says: you can trust me to make the difference between the deserving and the undeserving, between those that work and those that live on aid, which I know you don’t want ever to be in need of . To all he vows to wage a battle at Brussels in favour of community preference. And so the Sarkozy vote ranges from the professions to workers in the privately-owned sector (blue-collar workers included), whereas the left vote rallies the white-collar workers, whose jobs are often insecure, as well as those in the “public services”, and young voters.

Lastly, as concerns the conception of the presidency, the common people no doubt responded more favourably to Sarkozy’s rhapsodising about the State, Authority, and the President’s responsibility, than to Royal’s promise of participative democracy, for if the latter appeals to the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie and young voters, ordinary folk may feel that for want of the proper cultural capital they are ill equipped to make themselves heard.

WILLEMEZ: Much has been said about Nicolas Sarkozy’s capacity to federate the right and restore its pride. And as a matter of fact, he did rally and mobilise his own camp: he scored best in the regions and in the social categories that traditionally vote for the right: farmers, artisans, shopkeepers and the professions. For it is to be noted that the majority of the working class (blue- and white-collar workers, and the unemployed) have cast a Royal ballot, even though the very high turn-over suggests that Sarkozy won back to the polls part of those that had taken to staying away from them. But Sarkozy has also captured a large section of the National Front (FN) vote. Which, incidentally, confirms how volatile and unstable the FN electorate is. Lastly, Sarkozy’s victory is due to the signal defeat of the left, which has been unable to capitalise on its victory in the last 2004 regional elections, on the strong mobilisation during the European constitutional treaty campaign (TCE) in 2005, or the general dissatisfaction with the previous government.

VAKALOULIS: The reason Sarkozy gave for promoting a rupture is not just opportunistic. It reflects the candidate’s painstaking inventory of people’s every-day grievances. Of course it was essential to cloud the issues and shift the line of confrontation away from the real economic fracture by foregrounding the threatening loss of identity. But if he mostly incriminated the present symbolic loss, the candidate made pragmatic proposals to regulate the tensions and solve the problems in the future (with cuts on welfare, a stiffer penal policy, and general competition as the master key to a shared prosperity.) His show of projecting himself into the future and go-getting activism partly explains the left’s difficulty in showing up his real past performance as Finance and Economy, then Interior minister in the previous governments.

Paradoxically, Sarkozy brings political initiative back into play while strictly subordinating it to the dominating interests. The manoeuvre consecrates the hegemony of the right-wing ideology and his own victory in the political contest. The right-wing ideology has been revised to accommodate what might be called a doctrine of safe market intervention (State intervention to limit the risks inherent in the market economy). And so, having provisionally put its divisions aside, the right to-day seems to be reconciled with itself; unashamed to be itself, not only has it shed its complexes, but it has no political, cultural, or moral qualms about having moved closer to the far-right. Its political offensive in that direction proved quite successful in the first round where the UMP (Sarkozy’s party) stripped Le Pen of a large part of his vote and strengthened his popular following at the same time.

L’HUMANITÉ: Can we say that his victory came as a surprise?

ROZÈS: In 2002, there was that misguided notion that the shocking results in the presidential election (with Chirac and Le Pen in the final run-off to the second round, the Socialist candidate, ex-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin having been eliminated in the first), were due to division among the left. This prevented the left from giving the matter a closer look and being more critical with itself. The reason why Ségolène imposed herself on the scene in that way is that the electorate of the leftwing parties no longer understood the debates that went on within or between them. Still Sarkozy’s victory did come as a surprise in so far as logically Ségolène should have won. This presidential election was to redefine the image of the presidential function. As a consequence, the social question was pushed into the middle ground. Since Progress (on the left) and the Market (on the right) and Europe as the nation’s horizon (on both sides) had lost much of their persuasiveness, the president was expected to find practical ways and means but also to embody the political presidential identity. At the beginning of the campaign, Ségolène Royal was better at the latter than Sarkozy, as she could rely on the wide appeal among voters at large of the basic leftist values on which she drew to define what was “desirable.” Sarkozy himself was better at proposing solutions: these he drew from the traditional stock of right-wing recipes which a majority of voters believed were “possible” or “practical”. Sarkozy led his campaign very seriously. Royal gradually lost her lead relatively to her capacity to incarnate the presidency, without gaining any more credit as to her capacity to propose practical ways and means. Sarkozy kept his lead on the practical scale and substantially improved his image. The CSA-CISCO opinion poll of second round voters showed that those who had voted for Sarkozy had done so because they really supported him whereas the majority of those who had voted for Ségolène had cast an anti-Sarkozy vote. What stood between Royal and the voters was first the running battle about platform between the candidate and the socialist party, then her debating with Bayrou (the centrist candidate) the possibility of putting up an anti-Sarkozy front. This placed her in the position of challenger and undermined confidence in her ability to rally a majority of voters round a set of coherent solutions to address the economic, social and moral crisis.

L’HUMANITÉ: Would you say that the left has little to fall back on? Is the shortage provisional or is it a more structural exhaustion, do you think?

WILLEMEZ: The left’s electoral defeat is mainly due to the socialist party’s defeat, the reasons for which are structural. Because it has turned into a real electoral machine, undermined by ideological contradictions, and unwilling to make clear choices, the party has lost its traditional supporters, namely the working class and the salaried lower middle class. Ségolène Royal’s positioning in her campaign made the best of these contradictions, but it also exaggerated them so much that they seemed a caricature of her party. But despite recent calls and perfunctory declarations in favour of a renovation the socialist party today seems to be as incapable of a real overhaul as the aftermath of the 2002 and 1995 defeats then proved it to be.

L’HUMANITÉ: Would you say that the left has lost its hegemony among the working class?

WILLEMEZ: The socialist party has proved incapable of benefiting by the losses of the communist party within the working class. All the parties on the left have gradually lost the militant forces that enabled them to be in contact with the underprivileged. Leftist activism has become a middle-class activism that predominantly recruits in the state-owned or public sectors. There are clear differences as concerns the parties’ relations to the working class: the socialist party denies the link (though it was back in favour for a short spell following the 21 April 2002 disaster), whereas in the other leftist parties it is used at best as an emblem, or fantasised, or (in the worst case) exploited for internal strategic purposes. Only by going back to the day-after-day grass-roots activism which alone allows for real mutual exchanges can the vital link between the working class and political organisations or societal movements be revived.

VAKALOULIS: The most impressive element in the present circumstances is not so much the force of the neo-liberal offensive as the calamitous state of the parties on the left precisely when it is essential that they counterattack and impose the left’s own dynamics to defeat the adversary. The distracted left is not simply in want of unity, it is badly in need of common theoretical references, strategic common sense, and authoritative leadership. But above all it wants a political project to rally the working class to a new majority alliance with the middle class which is itself in danger of splintering. The downgrading of labour-related issues and foregrounding of post-materialist, societal issues may account for the dwindling support and activism in favour of the left within the working class and lower middle class. More generally, the left’s defeat results from two severe handicaps: its chronic incapacity first to conceptualise the changes behind today’s multi-polar map of employment, then to build and put up a convincing platform in support of the interests of the labour force at large. The enemy’s force only shows up the left’s shortcomings. For a remedy to be found, the left must be taken off its hinges and built up again on firm intellectual and strategic foundations so as to meet the electorate’s demands for change that the presidential campaign invited.

L’HUMANITÉ: Is there a future for the anti-globalisation and ecologist left?

ROZÈS: On the one hand the future of the left as a whole depends on Nicolas Sarkozy’s capacity in the exercise of his mandate to sustain the synthesis he effected during the campaign between the “social” (Gaullist) and the neo-liberal rightwing traditions. The alliance may be short-lived as it brings together heterogeneous social categories. On the other hand, in the course of history this country has built itself through social disputes over governmental policies. Since the President’s political clout has been vindicated by Sarkozy’s victory, politics is not set to lose any of its appeal or vigour! Lastly, the left’s future depends on its capacity to stick to a realistic approach: to show how or how far the desirable ends can be reached, to analyse the present stage of globalisation , to propose a project for Europe, a coherent set of economic, social, political means, to decide whether or not it wants to come into office, and with what ends in view, and with whom. The left’s political map depends on the answers it brings to these questions.

WILLEMEZ: There can be no future for the left without a radical pole that embraces the left wing of the socialist party, the anti-globalisation ecologists, the “societal” forces, the far-left organisations and activists who feel inclined to cooperate. True, the structures of the political scene are detrimental to its unity, if only because of the institutional frames (the laws governing the financing of political parties, the personalisation of office, the near absence of proportional representation…), or the role played by the media and spin doctors (who turn political contests into shows and obfuscate the ideological issues.) It is therefore necessary to break down these barriers, by patiently taking up the unifying process that started during the campaign against the European constitutional treaty and went on through last autumn’s discussions over “unitary candidates.”

VAKALOULIS: The future cannot be predicted, it can only be built collectively and practically. Nevertheless it is clear that the radical left is back on the European political scene, for the first time since 1989. New poles of radical protest have been emerging, not only in countries with a strong communist tradition, like Italy, Finland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, but also in predominantly social democratic countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium…Denmark affords a significant example of this trend, with the far-left taking 16;58% of the vote in the last election, and the ecologists 4.6%. The social-liberal aggiornamento of the European left gives more leeway to radical political forces. The anti-globalisation left in France is not bound to disappear or to be relegated to a subordinate, second-best position with the socialist party finding a new centre further to the right. The radical left’s future is in its own hands. Yet it has come up against a daunting obstacle: its terrible fragmentation, its sectarianism, its narrow, self-interested calculations, when the situation urgently requires an ambitious reconstruction. It labours under the under-representation of the working class (blue-collar and white-collar workers, the young with insecure jobs or no jobs, the under-privileged districts, and the social heterogeneity of its supporters. Above all, it has great difficulty in doing more than simply denouncing the enemy; it should set to work collectively, reconstruct its ideological foundations, and draft policies. To build up a larger following, it needs to move beyond the anti-globalisation phase, into a post-anti-globalisation phase…The task is therefore enormous!

Latest publications: Aux origines de la crise politique et Comprendre la présidentielle, par Stéphane Rozès, revue le Débat, ; la Justice face à ses réformateurs, par Laurent Willemez avec Antoine Vachez), 2007, PUF; le Syndicalisme d’expérimentation, par Michel Vakaloulis, à paraître (PUF)

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