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The French Left and the European Elections

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H3 9/13/09

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(This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of the Public i,the newspaper of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.)

Intuitively, given the rotten state of the capitalist economy in this period, one might have predicted that the voters in the 2009 election for the European Parliament, the only institution that is directly elected by popular vote in the highly bureaucratic European Union (EU), would have punished the Right for its direction of the economy. With the sole exception of Greece, European voters did exactly the opposite. A majority of them voted for the Right and against the Left.

The Election and Its Results

Although France has a multi-party system, sustained by a history of diverse ideological orientations and an element of proportional representation in the electoral system, traditionally two parties have been dominant in the past two to three decades. The two dominant parties have been the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), the conservative or right-wing party now headed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Socialist Party, now led by Martine Aubry. The Socialist Party has not held the presidency since the two terms of Francois Mitterrand from 1981-1995. The party has, at times, been strong in the National Assembly, and is very strong at the local levels. It has a majority in 20 of the 22 regional councils, and controls many municipalities, including Paris. But it has not been able to translate that strength into control of the national presidency. At the European level, it did exceptionally well in the last elections for the European Parliament, gaining 28.9% of the votes. It should be understood that no party gets over 50% of the votes in these multi-party elections.

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But in the European elections in June of this year, the vote for the Socialist Party fell by almost 50% to 16.48%, while Sarkozy's UMP and it's coalition partner, the Nouveau Centre, got 27.87% of the vote. The combined percentage of all of the Left, and I am excluding the environmentalist ticket, was only a total of about 29%. The Greens, called Europe Ecologie and led by Daniel-Cohn Bendit (known as Danny the Red during the 1968 student uprising for which he served as a catalyst) received 16.28% of the vote and wound up with 14 of France's 72 seats, the same number as the Socialist Party. These elections were a stunning gain for the Greens, as well as being huge success for Sarkozy's UMP that won 29 seats. This is very ominous for the Socialist Party that must face regional elections next year where its majority control at the regional level will be at risk.

Why Did This Happen to the French Socialists?

The answer cannot be sought uniquely within France because the Right beat the Left in almost all of the countries of the EU. Part of the reason has to be that the Left is simply not convincing the voting public throughout Europe that they have a program and/or a sufficiently competent list of candidates that can deal with the complex issues, like the economy and immigration. Some of it certainly is a backlash against immigration and the feeling that the Left is too sympathetic with immigrants and their cultures and too soft on crime. Indeed, it is fair to say that the major reason that Sarkozy rose to where he is was his tough law-and-order line on immigrant youth when he was Minister of Interior, and thus head of the National Police. The issues of race and cultural differences have been played skillfully by politicians on the Right throughout Europe.

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But there are also issues specific to France. The French Socialist Party has become a bit like the British Labour Party in that it has lost a sense of vision. In the 1970s, while it was still being forced to share the space on the Left with the Communist Party and the former Parti Socialist Unifie (PSU), it was forced to negotiate with them to come up with common programs for substantial change. After the severe decline of the Communists and the disappearance of the PSU, the imperative to define itself programmatically seems to have dissipated. It has relied too heavily upon party loyalty.

A related problem is that the party has been factionalized around specific personalities. That was even true back in the 1970s and 1980s when I did much of my research on the French Left. It took a very skilled politician by the name of Francois Mitterrand to both work the party internally and appeal sufficiently to the voters to capture the big prize in French politics, the presidency. But Mitterrand was at once pragmatic and programmatic in his approach to politics, and he was skillful in his maneuvering with the Communists, which he helped weaken (e.g., by joining with the Right in portraying them as racist) after the coalitions were no longer useful to the Socialists. On the other hand, prominent members of the PSU were simply absorbed by the Socialist Party.

Yet another problem for the Socialist Party has been that many of its traditional voters, middle-class people like teachers and other professionals, just deserted it in these elections. Some simply abstained. There was an unusually high 59.35% abstention rate of eligible voters in this election. Polls have found that a disproportionate number of these people were usual Socialist Party voters. But the party was not giving them much except the usual pretty faces to vote for. So, why do it? Why vote at all if you don't like what the others are offering either? The Socialists were not the only ones turning off the voters, however, even on the Left. A friend of mine who always had voted Communist was in a quandary and asked me, an American, for advice as to whether to vote or abstain. No party seemed to offer anything to the majority of eligible voters.

One party, however, did offer enough to pull some voters away from the Socialists. That was the Greens. One might think that the Greens would be too specifically issue-oriented to have that much appeal. But the French Greens are more than a single-issue group. Rather, they see the ecological approach as a lens that captures a whole host of problems that transcend the traditional right-left cleavages and that transcend national boundaries. Cohn-Bendit himself manifests this. He holds dual French and German citizenship and he has been a German representative to the European Parliament prior to his successfully running for the seat in France. In 2002, he was elected co-president of the Green Parliamentary Group in the European Parliament.

Cohn-Bendit also crosses the Right-Left divide and has compared himself to Obama as a unique change agent. Though he comes out of a very radical left-anarchical past in the 1960s and 1970s and still retains very left positions on what we Americans call social issues and on immigration, he supported military action in Bosnia and Afghanistan and he has been very open to free markets, including a willingness to consider privatizing the extremely efficient French railroad system. Furthermore, he has maintained very good relations with President Sarkozy himself who both calls him on the phone periodically and invites him to his office. Very recently Sarkozy has even begun to adopt the Green's environmental rhetoric. It is obvious that Cohn-Bendit's beyond the traditional politics aura has appealed to a lot of voters, including some more conservative centrists but, unfortunately for the Socialist Party, to some of its usual voters as well. After all, that was just the intention. There was also a bit of the cult of personality here, both because of Cohn-Bendit's very daring actions and image in the 1960s and his charismatic media presence.

While Cohn-Bendit helped to give rise to a kind of French New Left in the 1960s, he may now be helping to definitively do in the one remaining sizeable structure of the Old Left in France. Of course, those in the small parties to the left of the Socialist Party, which managed to win 5 seats in the European Parliament, will not shed any tears over that party's demise. But neither will they embrace the triumph of Dany the Red morphed into Dany the Free Marketeer.

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Next year's regional elections in France will be particularly significant in framing the ideological spectrum of French domestic politics.

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Belden Fields is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Illinois in Urbana and an editor/facilitator/writer for the Public i, the newspaper of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Center. His scholarly work has focused on French (more...)

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