The French Socialist Party (PS) was established by the conversion of the Section francaise de l internationale ouvriere (SFIO) in to the PS in 1969. However it wasn t until 1971 at the Epinay-sur-seine conference, when Francois Mitterrand emerged as leader that it began its transformation into France s leading political party. In order to understand the transition that took place within the socialist ranks in the 1980 s in France it is necessary to have an idea of the history of the left (RBB, 2000). During the Fourth Republic the Socialists (SFIO) adopted an anti communist stance, due to the influence of the Cold War ethos. It was also deeply involved in the coalition governments of the time often involved in policy and decision making of things that did not tow the party line. For example the SFIO were during the miners strike in 1948 it was the socialist interior minister, Jules Moch, who sent in troops against striking miners which resulted in at least two deaths (Forbes an Hewlett, 1998, p.17). During the 1960 s the political parties of the left were sorely divided which hit them hard during the elections as low support showed.
The problem the left had was the dominant position that the communist party (PCF) had always held, this made it difficult to create a large socialist government. It was in the 1970 s that the PS started to make concerted efforts to end this period of dominance. The PS proceeded to ally with the communists rather than fight against them, The agreement they came to was called the Common Program and came into place in 1972. This move was a deliberate one by the PS and it resulted in growth and consolidation of the PS at the expense of the PCF. The co-operation was simply a means to an end for the PS. This end was to create a socialist not communist dominance of the left.
The 1974 presidential election was a close run affair. With Pompidou s death the right had been left without an agreed candidate, the economy was deteriorating with inflation at 17%, and unemployment was rising (Gildea, 1997, 97-98). The left on the other hand was united behind Mitterrand, his control over the PS ensuring that factions were quiet. Plus Communist (PCF) support was guaranteed with the Common Program. By the time campaigning started Mitterrand was able to consider himself to be bound by no agreements and campaign on his own platform of moderate reform. Although the PS was locked in to specific policies such as ideas of worker democracy, Mitterrand as presidential candidate was able to build a wider coalition of support including left-leaning Catholics, and ex-gaulists. Mitterrand came within a hair s breadth of beating Giscard d Estaing getting 49.2% of the vote and the PS did very well in local elections in 1976 and 1977 (Forbes and Hewlett, 1998, p.16). All this led to Mitterrand s position to be strengthened and the PCF s weakened.
Then on the 10th May Mitterrand was elected and for the first time since the Popular Front, a predominantly socialist government was to be formed. Indeed since the French revolution of 1789 France had only experienced three years of truly left-wing leadership. Mitterrand s victories in the presidential elections of 1981 and 1988 had a big part to play in the rise of the PS, but he perhaps precipitated its fall as well.
Even by the mid 1980 s many voters disillusioned by the socialist performance in office, especially the recourse of austerity policies in 1983-84, had deserted the left, leading to defeat in the 1986 parliamentary elections. However this turned out to be a mere bump in the road compared to the 1993 defeat, where the PS left-radical vote dropped to 18.6%, having been 39.5% in 1981 and 37% in 1988 (RBB, IAC Trade and Industry Database, 1999).
A range of factors explains this outcome. The reformist, market-orientated turn adopted by the PS, with its stress on economic orthodoxy, budgetary restraint and the reduction of inflation, proved unexpected for voters who in 1981 had been promised a break with capitalism (Forbes and Hewlett, 1998, p.12). Yet it cannot fully explain their desertion to the right, who proposed the same with interest. However, the phenomenon of structural unemployment, with its increases to a new record high in nearly every year between 1981 and 1993, speaks of a failure of the PS which their voters were unable to forgive. In its wake, unemployment had exacerbated social stresses, notably racism, social exclusion and increased inequality, outcomes which contradicted the core principles of the left (Hall, Hayward and Machin, 1994, p.22).
The closing years of the Mitterrand era were marked by court politics , by a round of disputes between favourites and clans, of corruption in the president s entourage, controversies over the president s activities in the 1930 s and 1940 s and questions over his later choice of friends. Scandals over the financing of the PS and the distribution of AIDS contaminated blood to haemophiliacs led to the incrimination of the socialist hierarchy, notably the party leader, Henri Emmanuelli, in the first affair and the former prime minister, Laurent Fabius in the second. The image problems of the PS were exacerbated by the vicious in fighting between the Jospin, Fabius and Rocard factions at the 1990 Rennes conference where no majority emerged. Changes in the leadership of the PS made these disputes in to an even larger affair. After Lionel Jospin resigned from the post of first secretary in 1988, he was replaced by the die-hard Pierre Mauroy, to be succeeded in 1992 by Laurent Fabius ( once Mitterrand s heir apparent) and in 1993 by Michel Rocard (Mitterrand s enemy). None was able to broker agreement on a common direction within the party and turn the tide turning against the socialists (RBB,2000).
The designation of Jospin as presidential candidate in 1995 led to an unexpectedly successful campaign in which he drew the largest number of first round votes. Though beaten by Chirac in the second round, Jospin emerged as undisputed leader of the PS, with opportunity to consolidate the party and the divided left. As early as 1993 Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, one f Jospin s close collaborators, attempted to organise meetings between the PS, PCF and the Greens. By 1996, these three parties were taking it in turns to host meetings. Preliminary discussions over electoral programmes were underway in January 1997.
Then came the surprise dissolution of the Assemblee Nationale by president Chirac on 21st April 1997, it back fired some what on Chirac, because it caught the right napping, but accelerated the regrouping of the left. The PS involved itself in many agreements with other parties from the left such as the PCF and the Greens, mainly so that their candidates would not contest each other. In consequence the gauche plurielle was able to put forward the left s most united front for two decades, with the PS leading the way (Ardagh, 1999, pp.29-30).
The formation of the plural left corresponds surprisingly closely to the big bang view of French politics outlined by Rocard in 1993, according to which the new role of the PS was to federate the most innovative members of the ecology, communist and centrist parties. Yet Rocard seemed unaware that restructuring the left meant an implosion of the PS, a process to which he contributed by the party s poor shoeing in the 1994 European elections (which also destroyed his presidential hopes). Renewal had required two rounds of ideological and programmatic change. In the mid-1980 s the PS abandoned its Marxist baggage, gave up the temptation of a mixed economy dominated by nationalised firms and accepted the rigours of the internationalised market economy. The transformation was seen as a process of modernisation by some, and as a lurch to the right by others. However the requirement in the late-1990 s was to be anchored within the left (RBB, IAC Trade and Industry Database, 1999).
Francois Hollande, the current first secretary, stressed the necessity of this repositioning, he believed that if the PS were to occupy the centre and abandon the left then they would run the risk of electoral sanction. Implementation of this strategy has been threefold. In their discourse, the socialists have returned to stressing the traditional left-wing values of social justice and equality. In terms of a strategy of government, Prime Minister Jospin avoided the opening to the centre deployed by Rocard in 1988-91 and offered the plurality of his cabinet and parliamentary majority as guarantee of a left-wing orientation. In terms of legislative and policy programme, the left sought to reduce unemployment and social exclusion, to promote equality between the sexes and reinforce minority rights.
These features indicate that the renewal of the PS constituted a major change in that the party adapted its messages and policies to a changing social and political climate. However by 1997 the confidence of the voters in the PS as a party was still faltering and in need of consolidation (Janine Mossuz Lavau, 1998, 247-62). At this stage it was still unclear whether the PS would remain as a catch all party or try and transform more of a specialist left party like its coalition partners. When Jospin became Prime Minister he wanted to be more centrist much like Tony Blair is in this country. The problem he faced was that he had to and still has to try and keep the PS s coalition partners (PCF and the Greens) happy. This means that many of the policies have had to remain more left than Jospin and the members of the PS would like. However several commentators have tried to point out that the French do not like to sit on the fence , but prefer things to be more clear-cut, you are either right or left. So to move to the centre could put a lot of voters off. Perhaps having the coalition partners to keep the PS on the left to some extent, will benefit them in the long run.
In 1999 the PS won the European elections, winning 22 per cent of the vote. While its coalition partners the greens and the PCF took 9 and 7 per cent of the vote respectively. In fact the ruling coalition surfaced as the only left-leaning European government to retain popular support during the elections. With the opposition divided, Jospin s main concerns will be to maintain the status quo within the coalition. The Greens have only one minister compared to the PCF s four and have already expressed their wish for greater representation due to their electoral success (RBB, World of Information Country Report, 2000).
Despite having won recent elections, the PS is not guaranteed success in the future, it still has some problems to deal with. The PCF deputies remain as divided as ever about the merits of participating in government, and it is beginning increasingly to behave like an opposition party. The PCF s behaviour could cause discomfort to the PS, particularly as it could serve to highlight the gap between government rhetoric and reality, as well as the inconsistencies between different areas of policy. Recent events such as the states failed attempt to influence the outcome of a large banking merger, and Jospin s awkward reaction to the planned redundancies announced by the tyre manufacturer, Michelin have already brought into sharper focus the state s growing ineptness in the face of corporate mergers and restructurings. Jospin also constantly has to persuade left-wingers in his party (PS) that his programme is not becoming too centrist. He also has things such as the employer s federation (Medef) to deal with, who, in fact are still smarting over the introduction of the 35-hour week (RBB, Economist Intelligence Unit, 1999).
Nevertheless, with the economy growing strongly and unemployment falling, Jospin and therefore the PS, should remain in the political ascendant. The PS s cause will be helped by the state of right-of-centre parties, whose increasingly bitter personality rivalries will continue to sap their credibility and prevent them from acting as a unified opposition force. Through the years from when the PS was created in 1969 to the present day it has enjoyed long periods of great significance interspersed with periods of lesser significance, such as the four years after its loss in 1986. So far the year 2000 has been relatively bright for the PS and it looks as though they could be in charge for a while. Maybe even by 2002 they will have a President from their ranks as opposed to having to cohabit with someone from the right wing.
France in the New Century
Penguin Group, 1999
Jill Forbes and Nick Hewlett
On the Brink- the trouble with France
Little, Brown and Company, 1998
France since 1945
Oxford University Press, 1997
Peter A. Hall, Jack Hayward and Howard Machin
Developments in French Politics
Macmillan Press Ltd, 1994
Janine Massuz Lavau
Que veut la gauche plurielle
Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1998
Reuters Business Briefing
Reuters Ltd, 2000