The French Disconnection

Irina Kalashnikova/Sputnik via AP

Benoit Hamon, the French Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, talks to voters and the press after the announcement of the results of the Socialist presidential primary's second round in Paris. 

It is nearly 50 years since I first set foot in France, and I have been returning to the country regularly ever since. The sights and sounds of Paris still exhilarate me: the purposeful clackety-clack of the low-heeled boots of long-legged women hastening toward the “mouth” of the Metro; the clatter of china and hiss of the espresso machine mingled with the laughter and chatter of a busy café; the fragrance of a truffade simmering in a parabola of cantal and crème fraîche on the rue Mouffetard; the joy of small children, cartables strapped to their backs, running down a cobblestone street as fast as their little legs will carry them to rejoin their classmates in the school courtyard before the raucous bell signals the start of the day. Just down the same street is a plaque indicating the place where Hemingway partook of the movable feast, a short walk from where, centuries earlier, Descartes pondered the cogito and around the corner from where Valéry Larbaud hosted James Joyce as he put the finishing touches on Ulysses.

Half a century ago, the French were concerned and anxious about the United States. Would we ever extricate ourselves from Vietnam? Could anyone predict what Richard Nixon would do?

Today, the anxiety is back, in spades. A shopkeeper, realizing that I was American, offered his commiseration on the outcome of the election. A cabdriver, driving me to the studios of France 24, where I was to comment in real time on Trump’s inaugural speech, wondered how far the new president would go. Had America lost its mind—again? Later, in a very different venue—the hushed and padded dining room of one of France’s best restaurants—an investment banker and a former senior military advisor to the French government raised the same question.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the saying goes. Yet in French politics, things have changed—quite a lot. Voters are more volatile than ever before. Party lines have blurred. None of the people mentioned in the previous paragraph—the shopkeeper, the cab driver, the investment banker, or the senior military officer—will vote this year for the same party as 20 years ago. One has moved to his right, two to their left, and the fourth will abstain altogether.

The Socialist Party held its primary during the time I was in France, and the surprise winner was Benoît Hamon, one of the leaders of the dissident Socialist faction known as les frondeurs (a term derived from a rebellion that took place early in the reign of Louis XIV).

Hamon was not the only frondeur in the race. He was joined by Arnaud Montebourg, who early on was seen as the favorite to unseat former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Older (at 55 compared to Hamon’s 49), more flamboyant, and better known thanks to assiduous cultivation of the media, Montebourg came to personify the left-wing opposition to president François Hollande’s “neoliberal” turn after he was abruptly dismissed from his post as minister of industrial revival. Hamon, then minister of education, was cashiered along with Montebourg for resisting Prime Minister Valls’s “I love business” (j’aime l’entreprise) line.

Montebourg made two mistakes, however. Confident that he, more than any other candidate, embodied the gauchiste disgust with Hollande’s repudiation of the anti-finance capitalism platform on which he was elected, Montebourg sought to “presidentialize” his image before the first round of the primary. He soft-pedaled his rhetoric and muffled his flamboyance in unaccustomed sobriety. Yet he continued to croon the same tune that had made him such an irritant to Hollande’s first prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose replacement he had conspired with Valls and Hamon to bring about.

“Economic patriotism” (meaning subsidies for firms on the verge of collapse or threatened with removal outside of France, as well as resistance to foreign investment in strategic sectors) along with outspoken opposition to austerity had long been Montebourg’s stock-in-trade. What Hamon recognized, however, was that even though the party’s left wing continued to accept as gospel this economic critique of the Hollande-Valls line, repetition had robbed it of its power to mobilize.

The opposition between the government’s “social liberal” stance and the position of its “anti-austerity” critics had become stale, and given continued German opposition to significant economic stimulus, few voters unhappy with the party line believed that merely electing an anti-austerian would suffice to change the status quo. They had already tried that with Hollande, who had railed against austerity as a candidate only to reverse himself once in power.

Socialist primary voters therefore wanted a more definitive and dramatic break with the past—with both the previous majority “social liberal” line, espoused by Hollande, Valls, and most party leaders, and the previous minority line, most fully articulated by Montebourg.

Hamon therefore took a different tack. If the social liberals could present their program as a “modern” form of socialism adapted to the realities of the 21st century, he would go them one better by redefining the meaning of “socialist modernity.” His first innovation was to borrow heavily from the ecologists (who were also represented in the primary by François de Rugy). The future will be defined, Hamon argued, not by continuing economic growth but by a reining in of capitalism’s animal spirits for the benefit of the environment. In this low-growth, eco-friendly world, robots will relieve humans of the more unpleasant forms of labor and usher in an era of expanded leisure. No one should have to work more than 32 hours a week, and everyone should be guaranteed a minimum basic income even if idle.

Hamon originally proposed that this basic income of 750 euros a month should be paid to all adults, but when it was pointed out that the cost of this would equal roughly half of all current social spending, he scaled it back to 600 euros a month to be paid to youths 18-25 already receiving benefits. Despite this backsliding, his vision of a utopian future—what French Communists used to refer to as les lendemains qui chantent (tomorrows that sing)—seemed to catch on with voters, or at any rate with the sorts of voters who turn out to vote in a Socialist primary whose winner is given little chance of becoming president.

Although Hamon himself, citing Paul Valéry, warned of the need to be wary of “les mots qui chantent plus qu’ils ne parlent” (words that sing more than they speak), he nevertheless took to heart the well-known adage that campaigning in poetry is the best way to arouse jaded voters from their torpor, even if long experience has taught them that in the end governments inevitably govern in prose.

To give both candidates their due, the final debate between Hamon and Valls on the Wednesday before last Sunday’s runoff vote showed both men at their best. The exchanges were vigorous but polite, rhetorically polished, sustained by frequent references to academic studies and government reports, and conducted at a level of policy sophistication at which an American, accustomed to the debased exercises in infotainment that pass for debate in this country, can only marvel. On several points, including the vexed issue of how best to integrate France’s Muslim minority, Hamon certainly had the better of the argument, even if there is good reason to doubt the realism of his core program.

In the end, however, it was probably all for naught, or, rather, for the soul of tomorrow’s Socialist Party rather than for the presidency. If indeed a Socialist Party remains after the election: The gulf between the Valls faction, to which most of the party’s elected officials subscribe, and the Hamon faction seems more impossible to bridge than ever.

Although Hamon is unlikely to become France’s next president, it is not out of the question that after May 7 there will be a party realignment on the left, with Hamon’s followers joining supporters of the Greens and partisans of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left France insoumise, to form a new eco-socialist party, while Valls’s party of government merges with the En Marche! movement founded by former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, whose position might be described as neoliberalism with a human face.

Of course, the Socialists have always labored under a threat of disintegration. Fissiparousness is in their DNA. Hamon, Montebourg, and the third anti-Valls Socialist in the primary, Vincent Peillon, were once allies in a splinter group called the New Socialist Party. That group itself broke up after the 2005 referendum on the European constitutional treaty. Montebourg and Peillon backed the presidential candidacy of Ségolène Royal in 2007, while Hamon backed Laurent Fabius, who had favored the “no” (Euroskeptic) position.

Europe did not figure prominently in the primary of the left, but it may become a wedge issue between Hamon and Macron. Polls currently show Macron with a significantly better shot at making the second round of the general election than Hamon, but Macron’s positions on many issues remain vague. Hamon, who demonstrated his forensic skills in the debate with Valls, will therefore try to chip away at Macron’s lead by obliging him to make his proposals more explicit. Since Macron is the most outspokenly pro-EU candidate in the race, this could become a key point of division.

But whatever happens it is safe to say that the Socialist Party conceived by François Mitterrand at the Congress of Epinay—an unstable alliance of unreconstructed revolutionary Marxists, reform-minded trade unionists, social Catholics, and social-democratic intellectuals—is finished. Benoît Hamon won the Socialist nomination by offering one image of what a successor party might look like, but there is no guarantee that his vision will survive his candidacy, unless by some miracle he wins on May 7.

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