In the past two decades France’s once-powerful Socialists have suffered the kind of crushing electoral defeats that can remove a party permanently from political power.
Lionel Jospin did so badly in the 2002 presidential election that he failed to make the second round, allowing Jean-Marie Le Pen of the extreme-right Front National to compete in the run-off against Jacques Chirac, the incumbent.
The Socialist François Hollande narrowly won in 2012 only to withdraw, deeply unpopular, from the next race five years later, ultimately conceding the Elysée Palace to his young former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned as “neither right nor left”. In that race in 2017, the Socialist party candidate Benoît Hamon scored just 6 per cent of the vote in the first round.
But now the party’s leaders sense a glimmer of light on the horizon. As president, Mr Macron has alienated many of his leftwing former supporters with his economic reforms and sought the backing of the right on issues such as immigration and law and order.
And by allying themselves with the Greens, the Socialists have meanwhile helped the environmental left win control of several French cities, including Lyon and Marseille, in last year’s local elections.
“For the first time in eight years the left has tasted victory again,” Socialist leader Olivier Faure told the Financial Times, arguing that the elections showed a broad left-green coalition was capable of winning power again in France. “Today no force on the left has the ability to succeed on its own.”
The soft-spoken Mr Faure, however, is not seen by his party — or himself — as the figurehead to lead a united left-green front in next year’s presidential election.
Among Socialists, the person most likely to play that role is Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was convincingly re-elected to run the capital last year and is already laying the foundations for her presidential bid.
“Our country has reached the limits of neoliberalism,” she said in an interview in Le Journal du Dimanche this month. “We have to invent another model, of ecological transition and an economy that takes more care of the wellbeing of individuals and combats inequality.”
In the Lyon metropolitan area, France’s second city, the victorious Green-left alliance quickly fulfilled a campaign promise to return management of the water supply to the public sector from Veolia once its contract expires next year — a powerfully symbolic left turn given that Veolia’s forerunner, Compagnie Générale des Eaux, was established in Lyon by Napoleon III in 1853.
“Water is a common good — the most essential common good,” said Bruno Bernard, the Lyon metropolis president and Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV, the French Green party) politician.
Another bonus for the left is that the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted even conservative governments in Europe and around the world to adopt old-fashioned Keynesian solutions — including massive, deficit-financed state spending — to try to limit the economic damage of successive lockdowns and disruptions to business.
“Everywhere we find the shock absorber of the state used for a crisis that would be disastrous without it,” said Mr Faure. “The crisis shows we need public services. You can live without DVDs but not without cleaners or health workers or teachers.”
The French Socialist party was once a force to be reckoned with. On show at party headquarters in a suburb of Paris is a bust of the renowned early 20th century Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated by a nationalist in 1914. But the party, like its one-time Communist ally, has fallen on hard times since the 1981-1995 presidency of François Mitterrand.
Not only have the Socialists been overtaken in popularity by the EELV, which garnered more than twice as many votes in the European elections of 2019, but they have also been overshadowed by the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon — even if his star has waned since he won nearly 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election.
Despite Mr Faure’s insistence on the need for a common front of the left, there are some who think the Socialists will be swallowed by their rivals.
Pascal Lamy, a French Socialist who was previously a European commissioner and headed the World Trade Organization, said the party might find itself to be prey rather than predator in the tussle for primacy with the Greens. “For the moment, in France, it’s the Greens who are eating the Socialists,” he said.
There is also a risk that infighting between parties and politicians, and the presidential ambitions of people such as Yannick Jadot, the EELV leader, and Mr Mélenchon, will divide the leftwing vote in the first round of the 2022 presidential election and so exclude the left altogether from the second — exactly Mr Jospin’s fate in 2002.
“I think among citizens there is a desire for the left, for social change, for cultural change, even if it’s not from a majority. We saw it in the municipal elections,” said Jack Lang, a Socialist former minister who now heads the Arab World Institute in Paris. “But at the national level, democracy is perverted by the presidentialist system.”
That system, which narrows the field to two in the final round of the election, tends to excite would-be leaders but punish political movements that have failed to rally round a common candidate from the start. “Everyone sees themselves as a prophet, a future Napoleon,” scoffs Mr Lang.
The names of no less than 10 possible candidates of the left have been floated as presidential possibles in recent weeks, including Ségolène Royal, another former minister who was previously Mr Hollande’s partner and who lost the 2007 presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy.
But it is Ms Hidalgo who currently stands out from the crowd as the best chance for the Socialists and the left more broadly to challenge Mr Macron, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National and whoever emerges from the equally bitter struggles for pre-eminence on the centre-right.
She has, so far, managed to co-opt Green support for her programmes in Paris. As Mr Faure said in December: “She would make an excellent president.”