French socialism has turned into another electoral machine that excels only at manufacturing empty slogans.
Last month a majority of the French electorate (66 percent) voted for the right wing – the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and other centre-right parties – in the second round of regional elections.
While this vote does not necessarily represent a turning point in French politics – since it will not change the existing political balance of power in terms of the parliamentary majority held by the socialists – the results offer an insight into the French public’s mood after three years of Socialist rule.
One significant outcome, however, is how the French public embarked on what could best be described as a protest vote against the ruling party and chose instead to vote for the right and the far-right.
But the issue is not whether those results are a direct consequence of policies pursued by the socialist government since Francois Hollande was elected in 2012. The fundamental question here is what did the socialist party, and the French left in general, do to implement its ideological, political and social humanistic values whenever it took power in France?
The socialist idea
If history is anything to go by, the “socialist idea”, for over a century, revolved around the social struggle to uphold humanist values above all others: An egalitarian socialism that promotes social transformation and fights for people’s emancipation regardless of racial, religious, cultural or geographical conditions.
It was in 1897 when Jean Jaures, a founding father of French socialism, outlined one of the fundamentals of the ideology in a speech titled, “the socialist idea”, denouncing the contrast between the proletariat’s enormous misery and the bourgeoisie’s social nepotism.
Jaures’ theory retained the Marxist idea of the danger of capitalist concentration, the theory of value and the need for a united working class: “All producers should become co-owners of the instruments of labour […] in order to replace what is called the capital, that is to say, the private ownership of the means of production, by the collective social ownership of the means of production.”
It is essentially motivated by the desire to promote a humanist socialism where universal human emancipation, social justice and solidarity – as opposed to capitalist materialism – would form the core of the socialist idea.
Fast forward to 2012, Hollande, then the socialist party’s presidential candidate, declared: “My real opponent is the world of finance.”
Following his election as president in January 2013, Hollande declared himself aSocial Democrat, which means flirting with liberalism, market economy, and the temptation of abandoning the policies of the redistribution of wealth – notions that are in essence opposed to socialism.
On another occasion, Hollande, during a conference in London, declared: “Today there are no communists in France. Or not many… The left was in government for 15 years during which time we liberalised the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations. There is no big fear.”
Hollande was in fact doing what renowned French economist Guy Sorman described as: “Crossing the symbolic threshold of socialism towards social democracy, to accept the market economy as the end of economic history… What is left of the socialists once they abandon the struggle to replace capitalism by a planned and controlled economy?”
Change of heart
But the socialists’ change of heart did not begin with Hollande. A decade earlier, Lionel Jospin, another prominent figure of French socialism and a presidential candidate, paved the road for Hollande’s policy shifts, when he adopted an electoral campaign slogan: “My project is modern, not socialist.”
Jospin’s words accurately reflect the economic policies embraced by the socialist camp. Indeed, most of the privatisation schemes in the past decades occurred under Jospin’s prime ministerial mandate between 1997 and 2002, with all that privatisation implies: Depriving the state – then the people – of its means of production. These privatisations had received the blessing of the right wing camp led by then President Jacques Chirac. This clearly indicates the extent to which economic policies pursued by the left, even then, were in harmony with the ideals advocated by liberalism.
But one of the landmark events that could explain the left’s shift towards embracing a liberal agenda came in 1983, when socialist Francois Mitterrand, after two years in power during which he raised great hopes and was supposed to embody an anti-capitalistic policy (four Communist ministers were part of his government), announced economic measures worthy of a right-wing president.
It was the socialist government of Pierre Beregovoy that put France on the track of financial globalisation by opening up major French industrial companies to private capital, thus enforcing a withdrawal of the state in favour of big international financial groups. These were bold moves that even a right wing government could not dare to consider.
It was Mitterrand, according to historian Francois Cusset whose policies led to “the left’s abandonment of the lower classes… He [Mitterrand] quickly lost the people, in every sense of the word, social as well as electoral”.
Another historic failure of the French left to stick to its founding values has been registered on the foreign policy front. Since 1981, all socialist governments backed US military adventures. Ironically, the only French opposition to an American war campaign was under Jean Pierre Raffarin’s right wing government, during Jacques Chirac’s presidency in 2003, regarding the US invasion of Iraq.
More recently, during the Israeli bloody offensive against Gaza last summer, while the world condemned Israeli crimes against the Palestinian population, the French socialist government did not move beyond empty diplomatic rhetoric calling for self-restraint but without condemning Israeli crimes.
And when popular protests took place in many French cities, not even one socialist minister or party official expressed any support for the martyred Palestinian population. Only Olivier Besancenot, leader of the new Anti-Capitalist Party, had participated in a demonstration in Paris.
More than 100 years after Jean Jaures’ speech, what we are witnessing today is socialism-lite, ie, a diluted version that makes way for a hybrid socialism completely disconnected from its source and the reality of marginalised, exploited or oppressed people.
So how could one justify such a disaster? Are we entitled to claim that each era or period of history has its own struggles, its values and type of action to justify or excuse this eclipse of the French socialism? Or is it right to say that human values promoted by socialism in the early 20th century are of timelessness and universalism that provides them with an almost sacred status and allows them to cross the centuries?
French socialism seems to have turned into another electoral machine excelling in the art of manufacturing ephemeral slogans empty of any substance or undertaking challenges facing society, whatever they are, economic, ideological, or social.
Socialism no longer rhymes with progressivism, the reason why recent election results were all but surprising.
~Ali Saad is a French sociologist and media critic, focusing on the influence of mass media on society.
via What’s left of the French left? – Al Jazeera English.