Image via Michael Costa, Wikimedia Commons.
While Social Democrats are in power in the Scandinavian countries and Germany, France’s Socialist Party – which a decade ago controlled the presidency and the National Assembly – is now a minor party. What happened? The answer begins with the 2017 election, when Emmanuel Macron was elected to his first term as President. I go on to analyze the nature and origin of Macronism, and then put the evolution of the French political landscape in the context of developments in other representative democracies.¹
The crisis in the Socialist Party and the origin of Macronism
In the first round of the 2017 election to replace Socialist President François Hollande, Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon – even with the support of the Greens – was able to win only 6.4 per cent of the vote. Support for the left as a whole fell sharply, dropping from 43.8 per cent in 2012 to 27.7 per cent in 2017. This collapse of the Socialist Party was confirmed by its unprecedented decline in the June 2017 legislative elections,² in which it received only 7.7 per cent of the vote in the first round and retained only 31 of the 278 seats it had won in 2012. The chief beneficiary of the Socialist collapse was Emmanuel Macron, the former banker who led in the first presidential round of 2017. Though not a member of the Socialist Party, Macron had been Deputy Secretary General of the Presidency from 2012 to 2014 and then Minister of Finance from 2014 to 2016.
This massive transfer of centre-left voters from the Socialists to Macron was already apparent in polls conducted in September 2016. The marginalization of the Socialist Party continued through the campaign, with supporters of the Socialist candidate Hamon switching to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed).³ Meanwhile, the centre-right Republicans⁴ and the candidate of the centrist Mouvement Démocrate, François Bayrou, saw some of their support move to Macron in early 2017.
How did this happen? When François Hollande defeated the incumbent right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy in the April–May 2012 presidential election and the Socialists easily won the June legislative elections, the party was in the strongest position ever in its history. It held the presidency of the Republic, the prime minister’s office (Jean-Marc Ayrault), the vast majority of cabinet positions (in coalition with the Greens and the Radical Party, the PRG), an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly and the presidency of the Senate, as well as a dominant position at the regional and departmental levels. The Socialists rejected any opening toward the centre⁵ and governed with the support of only the Greens and the PRG. But after having campaigned against neoliberal economic policies (“My enemy is finance,” as Hollande put it at a party meeting in Le Bourget on January 22, 2017), they chose to bring in those very same policies, just as other socialist and social democratic parties have once in power. The Socialists proved unable to cope with increasing unemployment, while a major scandal, the Cahuzac affair, added to their difficulties.⁶
As the Socialists’ position deteriorated, in March 2014 the Greens left the government and Manuel Valls took over as Prime Minister. This marked the beginning of an ongoing guerrilla war that pitted the left or “frondeur” wing of the Socialist Party against the majority of the Socialist caucus in the Assembly. On a vote in 2016 on a proposed labour law, the frondeurs – including Benoît Hamon – put forward a motion of censure supported by opposition parties (the right, the Communists and the Greens) that almost succeeded at bringing down the government. In another case, most Socialists opposed a proposal to revoke the French citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism, presented following the terrorist attacks of 2015 (and abandoned in the end). Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigned as a result of the dispute.
The mounting divisions among the Socialists, as well as among The Republicans (centre-right), pushed some of the leaders of both parties to consider a profound strategic shift. They were inspired by Germany’s economic success, which they saw as resulting from economic and social reforms made possible by the cooperation of the main political forces in the form of left-right (Social Democrat–Christian Democrat) coalitions. Hence, they planned to form a Republican-Socialist coalition for the second round of the 2017 election. Concretely, this meant that the Socialists would support the right-wing candidate in the second round of the presidential election against Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, who according to the polls would earn a place in the runoff by finishing second in the first round. But because of the French political culture of left-right confrontation, this strategy had to remain hidden until the election.
In the interval Macron, who had been planning a presidential bid from the moment he was named Minister of Finance in September 2014, developed another, more audacious strategy.⁷ Since the existing parties, the Socialists and The Republicans, were incable of reform, he would present himself as the vehicle for the centre-left and centre-right to come together. What the young candidate (38 years old in 2016) offered was nothing less than the reconstruction of a “blocked” political system, transcending the left-right division.
Starting in November 2016, events created a perfect storm in favour of Macron, who had left the government on August 30. First of all, in the primary to choose The Republicans’ presidential candidate, former Prime Minister François Fillon, running on a very right-wing program, unexpectedly defeated the favourite, Alain Juppé, putting an end to any hope of agreement between Socialist and Republican moderates for a joint candidate in the second round. Similarly, on January 29, 2017, Benoît Hamon defeated Manuel Valls by 59 to 41 per cent in the Socialist Party primary.⁸ Clearly the moderates, whose ranks included most elected officials and party functionaries, were out of step with the base.
In this context, the initial core of Macron’s movement came primarily from the Socialist Party’s right wing⁹ and youth. They were joined before the first round of the presidential election by environmentalists (notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit), a number of left-wing radicals, ex-Communists (including former Communist Party First Secretary Robert Hue) and about 15 former ministers under conservative presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.
A divided left opposition
After 2017, the left opposition remained divided. The much-weakened Socialists, under their new first secretary Olivier Faure, sought primarily to win back voters on their left by repudiating François Hollande’s legacy, denouncing government policy as right-wing and claiming the mantle of “social ecology” while proposing to the Greens that they run joint candidates for elections at different levels (European 2019, municipal 2020, regional 2021). This outstretched hand was ignored, but the Socialists nevertheless managed to get through this period by retaining most of their local positions, with Socialist mayors in many large cities. In addition, five of the 13 regional presidents and 23 of the 96 departmental presidents in metropolitan France were Socialists.
Following the 2017 presidential election, La France Insoumise (LFI) was in a strong position to rally support from the left. But Mélenchon’s sectarian attitude and extremism very quickly led to LFI’s isolation and rapid electoral decline (6.3 per cent in the 2019 European elections). For their part the Greens, much weakened after the 2017 elections in which they lost all their Assembly seats, decided to systematically oppose Macron. This resulted in a significant improvement in the 2019 European elections, where they topped the left with 13.5 per cent of the vote, and led many Greens to see themselves as the natural heirs of the left’s legacy. Some went even further and maintained that ecology had now replaced socialism as the alternative to capitalism. They thus adopted an intransigent position, systematically presenting their own candidates where there were Socialist incumbents in municipal and regional elections and agreeing to join combined lists in the first round only in places where they were already in charge.
Though the Greens failed in 2020 to conquer the major Socialist cities which they had targeted as a priority (Paris, Lille, Rennes, Nantes, Brest), they nevertheless achieved unprecedented breakthroughs in Lyon, Strasbourg, Besançon, Bordeaux and Tours. But this success was short-lived: the Greens fell back in the 2021 regionals, failing to win a single region. They trailed the Socialists n the first round in the five regions with Socialist incumbents, but since the Greens came out ahead of the Socialists and LFI in areas where the right was strong, the question of leadership remained unsettled. The Socialists claimed that only they could lead the left to victory, the Greens were still convinced that they were on the side of history, and LFI counted on Mélenchon to repeat his 2017 presidential election performance.
There were also significant ideological differences on the left. On Europe, LFI, unlike the Socialists and Greens, opposes adhering to European treaties. On identity issues and Islam, the Socialists reject placing opposition to Islamophobia above secularism and republican universalism. LFI and the Greens are much more sympathetic to “decolonial ecofeminism.” The Socialists, unlike LFI, support the police – the Greens are divided. On foreign policy, unlike the Socialists and Greens, LFI calls for withdrawal from NATO and a rapprochement with Russia. Overall, LFI and the Greens operate in a culture of opposition, including opposition to the Socialist Party, which they see as prepared to sacrifice left-wing objectives to achieve power.
The 2022 presidential election and its immediate consequences
The catastrophic performance (1.8 per cent) of the Socialist candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, in the first round of the 2022 presidential election confirmed the collapse of the Socialist Party and the failure of the policy pursued under Olivier Faure’s leadership. Repeating the mantra “Macron is on the right” was not enough for the centre-left voters the Socialists had lost in 2017 to return. Macron retained the vast majority of those voters despite the wear and tear of power. But the first round of this election also confirmed the collapse of The Republicans, already signalled in the 2019 European elections, where they won only 8.5 per cent.
It is no coincidence that the major governing parties of left and right both collapsed between 2017 and 2019. As noted above, Macronism was born out of the Socialist Party’s growing inability to choose between rhetoric emulating – and thus legitimizing – left-wing extremism in election campaigns and much more moderate actions while in government. The same was true of The Republicans with regard to right-wing extremism. Just after his election in 2017, Macron appointed as Prime Minister the Republican mayor of Le Havre, Édouard Philippe, an ally of Alain Juppé.
The moderate right electorate began to rally en masse to the government, a process completed by 2019.
The left gained ground in the first round of this year’s presidential election – 32 per cent, up from 27.7 per cent in 2017. But these gains almost entirely benefited Jean-Luc Mélenchon with 22 per cent (up from 19.6 per cent in 2017), while the Greens were able to win only 4.6 per cent. In the second round Emmanuel Macron, with 58.5 per cent, easily won reelection against Marine Le Pen. He is the first incumbent president since General de Gaulle in 1965 to be reelected where there was no “cohabitation” – something Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 were unable to do under the same conditions.¹⁰
In advance of the legislative elections of June 12 and 19, LFI invited the other left-wing forces to conclude an electoral and programmatic alliance. The aim was to obtain a majority in the National Assembly and impose cohabitation on Macron, with Mélenchon as Prime Minister. This alliance, dubbed the “New Popular Ecological and Social Union,” was concluded at the beginning of May between LFI, the Greens, the Communists and the Socialists on the basis of the core LFI program. The agreement provided for constituencies to be distributed according to the results of the first round of the presidential election, which would leave the Socialists with 70 constituencies out of 577. The Socialist leadership, behind First Secretary Olivier Faure, felt the presidential results left the party with no alternative, and was able to secure the ratification of the deal by the party’s National Council on May 5, with 167 for, 101 against and 24 abstentions.
Many former leaders and local officials opposed the agreement¹¹ and indeed the negotiations themselves. In the view of former President François Hollande, the deal is an abandonment of the party’s basic principles, in particular concerning Europe and secularism, and constitutes the self-annihilation of the Socialist Party. Former Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve decided to leave the party. Some candidates nominated by the party before the agreement and not among the 70 allocated to the Socialists, including two incumbents, have refused to drop out. In many cases local officials have supported them.
The Socialist Party, as it has existed since its reorganization in 1971, is no more. New political orientations will have to be established, because rallying to the program of the radical left is merely a short-term, tactical move taken halfheartedly even by the majority who accepted the agreement. We shall soon see whether Socialist incumbents will be able to retain their seats in the legislative elections on June 12 and 19. The elections could also determine the fate of several groups within the party which may leave. Many Socialist officials are already calling for founding a new party, while others could join the government majority.
It is still too early to know what the large number of local Socialist elected officials (city halls, departments, regions) will do. It also needs to be kept in mind that since 2017 the democratic left in France has not been limited to the left opposition. Most leaders of Macron’s La République en Marche come from the Socialist Party. In addition, since 2020 the government majority has encompassed several associated political parties, including the social democratic Territoires de Progrès, founded by Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Public Accounts Minister Olivier Dussopt. Four other members of the government in Macron’s first term and around 50 La République en Marche members of the Assembly also joined Territoires de Progrès.
Another new party is the Fédération Progressiste, founded to “strengthen the left wing of the majority” by François Rebsamen, the Socialist Mayor of Dijon who supported Macron in the first round, along with former Socialist Health Minister Marisol Touraine. The future of these parties, as well as their equivalents such as Édouard Philippe’s Horizon on the centre-right and En Commun!,¹² which takes an ecological stance, will depend on Macron’s choices in forming the next government, the composition of his future majority and the possible establishment of proportional representation for the 2027 legislative elections.
The crux of the problem for French Socialists is that since the 1980s they have not been able to define themselves politically other than by opposition – first by opposition to Le Pen (we are on the left because we are against the far right), then by opposition to Sarkozy and finally, since 2017, by opposition to Macron, who is systematically characterized as “right-wing.” With the party overtaken by the Greens, some Socialists see the alliance with Mélenchon as a way of recapturing its “left image.” The problem is that voters tend to prefer the original to the copy. Furthermore, when it comes to opposing the far right, Macron appears more credible.
The complex state of social democracy in western Europe
Scandinavian and German social democratic parties have far fewer identity problems and currently form the government in their respective countries. But their being in power cannot conceal these parties’ significant electoral decline since the 1970s, which is symmetrical to that of the major moderate right-wing parties and is due mainly to the combined effects of declining economic growth and rising public expectations.¹³ The Scandinavian and German social democrats started from a stronger position than the French Socialists and have benefited from much wider social networks (unions, associations), so that for the most part their unavoidable decline has not turned into a disastrous collapse. But the evolution of these parties shows that the fears of French Socialist and conservative leaders that too obvious collaboration with the opposite camp would scare away their voters were far from groundless.
In Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the Social Democrats and the main moderate right-wing party have always avoided governing together, even if it meant forming minority governments. In the Netherlands, both the collapse of the Christian Democrats in 2010 and that of Labour in 2017 resulted from the formation of a coalition with the party that, in each case, had been the winner’s main opponent in the previous election.
In Germany, the grand coalitions between the two major parties after Angela Merkel took office in 2005 (2005–09, 2013–17 and 2017–21) accelerated their decline.¹⁴ In the 2019 European elections both major parties appeared to be on the verge of collapse, with the Christian Democrats reduced to 20 per cent and the Social Democrats to 15 per cent of the vote. In 2021, the formation of a “centrist” agreement, with the Greens and the liberals agreeing to ally with the Social Democrats, brought the Merkel-led grand coalition under her Christian Democratic Party to an end.
We should also note that in Britain the institutional structure, in particular the first-past-the-post system, has for a century been a major obstacle to the development of national alternatives to the Labour and Conservative parties. But as in the United States, political tensions and crises are unfolding within and between major parties, in an atmosphere of increasingly fierce clashes over identity and cultural issues.
The French case with its particular institutional system – election of the president by universal suffrage and a two-round majority electoral system in legislative elections – is a mixture of the two models. The institutional constraint was strong enough to allow the major traditional parties of left and right to expect to be able to govern without being obliged to cooperate, but it proved insufficient to protect each of them when up against an emerging party of the centre.
It remains to be seen whether this new French model will prevail at home and, over time, abroad.
A legislative majority for Macron?
On June 12 and 19, French citizens head back to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly. There are 577 seats up for grabs in the two-stage election process. According to the most recent polls, Emmanuel Macron’s centre coalition, Ensemble, has a reasonable chance of winning around 325 seats, enough for a majority. Macron’s allies are the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem), a centre-right pro-European party; Horizons, the centre-right party of former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe; and a number of smaller centre parties.
The left-wing opposition coalition led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon has made some gains during the campaign and, at the time of writing, leads in the polls with 31 per cent, followed by Macron’s coalition at 26 per cent and the right-wing coalition led by Marine Le Pen at 20 per cent. However, this configuration may not prevent a Macron coalition majority. The two-stage election process favours more moderate candidates since, in the second round, supporters of the two more extreme groups will most likely either stay home or vote for Macron’s centrist candidate if their candidate is no longer on the ballot.
In addition, the predicted low turnout should favour Macron, who has done particularly well with elderly and better-educated voters, two groups that traditionally show a relatively high turnout. In the unlikely eventuality that Ensemble should fail to win a majority, Macron would have to negotiate policy compromises with other parties to his right or left, most likely The Republicans, the Socialists or the Greens.